The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hong Kong protesters defy threats from Beijing, police and heavy rain for huge — and peaceful — march 

After months of dissent, protests continue in Hong Kong

Dec. 1, 2019 | Protesters flood a street during a rally. (Vincent Thian/AP)

HONG KONG — Hundreds of thousands of protesters, facing an intensifying police crackdown and threats of military force from Beijing, responded Sunday with a huge and peaceful march, underscoring continued mass support for the pro-autonomy movement here.

Although authorities did not grant permission for a march and a torrential downpour soaked demonstrators, the spontaneous procession made its way haphazardly across the city, participants defiantly chanting calls for freedom and repudiating alleged police brutality.

Organizers estimated the turnout at more than 1.7 million — among the largest demonstrations seen here in weeks. It was marked by restraint from protesters, who urged one another to avoid confrontations with police.

Police said 128,000 filled Victoria Park at its busiest point but did not release estimates of the number who marched or demonstrators in the surrounding areas.

After two months of sustained dissent, the movement is entering a pivotal moment: Hong Kong police have deployed unprecedented force, including in residential neighborhoods, and made more than 700 arrests to discourage further unrest. Protesters and pro-establishment groups have clashed violently. And Beijing has ramped up pressure to bring international corporations to heel.

But as the stakes rise sharply, activists exhorted Hong Kongers on Sunday to “no longer stay silent.” 

“Over the last two months in Hong Kong, we’ve shed blood, sweat, and tears,” the Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer of the rally, said in an open letter. “Hong Kongers have endured enough humiliation by the Hong Kong Government and the Hong Kong Police.”

Civil Human Rights Front leaders, who organized marches in June that drew millions, feared that attendance this time would be affected by bad weather and an airport fracas last week that marred the movement’s image. Police rejected their demands for a march from Victoria Park to central Hong Kong and urged the rally to stay put inside the park.

But the organizers’ concerns about turnout appeared to be unfounded, as Victoria Park quickly overflowed with people despite pouring rain and gusting winds. So many emerged for the rally that major thoroughfares near Victoria Park were jammed.

The large turnout, which forced the closure of roads and diverted traffic, was the latest indicator of the pro-autonomy movement’s unflagging momentum, even after the ugly scenes Tuesday at Hong Kong’s airport, where frenzied mobs blocked passengers from boarding planes and effectively took two Chinese men hostage for a short time. The attendance also underscored protester resilience in the face of the escalating crackdown by authorities and rhetoric from Beijing, which has sought to brand them as terrorists.

China’s People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force, practiced crowd control tactics in Shenzhen, the Chinese city connected to Hong Kong, over the past week.

“They are doing it to scare us,” said Jeff, a 36-year-old manager at a logistics firm who took a break from the rain-soaked march. He pushed back against China’s depiction of the protesters as radicals.

“Hong Kong is part of China, but Hong Kong people deserve to have our rights and our benefits,” said Jeff, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisal from authorities.

“We want to fight for freedom, fight about the extradition, fight about police, about housing, about our rights.” 

Previous rallies have been tarnished by violence, and the prospect loomed over the event on Sunday. Opposition figures hoped the rally would help restore the movement’s international image after protesters at the airport were branded as extremists earlier in the week.

When protesters used laser pointers to provoke police guarding government buildings, others scolded them and called for restraint. Wong Yik-Mo, one of the leaders of the Civil Human Rights Front, said he believed most protesters wanted a peaceful demonstration. 

“There’s a consensus everyone will be restrained,” he said. “It’ll be in the police’s hands whether to provoke us, whether to fire tear gas.”

The police presence remained light through the afternoon, and there was no attempt to block the route of the march. But a front-line police officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said water cannons — a new crowd-dispersal tool police have in their arsenal — were on standby. 

Protesters are, above all, demanding an independent investigation into the police and their use of force to quell the demonstrations, including mass arrests, tear gas fired in almost all of Hong Kong’s districts and the use of projectiles including bean bag rounds.

Some carried signs showing a one-eyed young woman, a reference to a medical worker who was hit in the eye by a projectile last week during clashes between police and protesters. Police say they cannot confirm how the woman was injured.

After airport mayhem, Hong Kong protesters face tipping point in battle for hearts and minds

A spokesman for the Hong Kong government “expressed regret” at the protest’s focus on the police.

“Many police stations were attacked or besieged for over 75 times [during the protests]. The Police have been handling these illegal acts with tolerance,” the spokesman said in a statement.

“Only when they were violently attacked and left with no choice did the Police use minimum force to disperse protesters in order to restore social order.”

The government “appealed to those participating in public meetings and processions to express their views in a peaceful and rational manner and say ‘no’ to violence so that Hong Kong can resume order as soon as possible, return to rationality and regain momentum.”

Helen Ho, a housewife from the outlying Sha Tin neighborhood, prepared to enter Victoria Park on Sunday with her 2-year-old son strapped to her chest. Her husband, Samuel, a teacher, cradled their 1-year-old daughter.

Ho said she was tired of watching police officials hold daily news conferences saying they use limited force even as they launch tear gas and fire projectiles into crowds of civilians.

“At this point, it is very clear they can do anything they want then say anything. It doesn’t make sense,” Ho said as she put a pacifier in her son’s mouth. 

She worried that violence would erupt again. She would take her children home soon.

“We need to show our voice about police brutality and fight for their future,” Ho said. Chants of “Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!” rang through the park.

Even as night fell, masked protesters who usually arm themselves with bricks, shields and other makeshift weapons to square off with police remained restrained, urged by others nearby not to fall into “police traps.”

Protesters encouraged one another not to gather around Beijing’s liaison office in the city, a target of earlier demonstrations that was heavily guarded Sunday by riot police, to keep the evening peaceful.

Paranoia has been high in the movement after undercover police dressed as protesters in masks and black outfits made arrests last weekend.

Demonstrations were also held on Saturday, one of them organized by teachers who said they feared for their young students who have been at the forefront of the protests. 

Marches were held in cities around the world, including New York, Boston, London, Toronto, Sydney and Melbourne, to express solidarity for the Hong Kong movement.

Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.

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