HONG KONG — Hong Kong protesters on Saturday gathered in the tens of thousands to mark the fifth anniversary of the Umbrella Revolution that awakened the city’s distinct identity in opposition to its masters in Beijing and laid the groundwork for a political crisis now in its 17th week.
After a months-long and unprecedented protest movement that has ruptured trust between many Hong Kong residents and the city’s institutions, protesters have a more urgent message: mass action on Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Police on Saturday once again moved to quickly clear protesters with tear gas and water cannons blasting a blue dye, an indication of officers’ waning tolerance for demonstrations that have played out every weekend since June.
The Umbrella Movement was triggered by a proposal from Beijing to grant Hong Kong only limited democracy by keeping the city from choosing its own leader. It turned into an occupation of city streets when police fired tear gas into a crowd.
Five years later, protesters descended upon the same location, an area around government buildings in central Hong Kong. Armed with stacks of posters, stickers, fliers and cans of glue and spray paint, they rebuilt so-called Lennon Walls of anti-government graffiti. Images that have shocked this city over the past weeks were on display: police pummeling black-clad protesters and spraying commuters in the eyes with pepper spray, injured demonstrators clutching their wounds.
Almost every blank surface — walls, sidewalks and street signs — was covered with posters advertising demonstrations on the Chinese anniversary. Protesters see the anniversary as a climax for their movement, which, both in 2014 and today, centers on the fears that China under leader Xi Jinping will erase the city’s cherished freedoms and autonomy.
“From one generation, to another, to another, Hong Kongers will go on to fight for the same goal, which is genuine democracy in Hong Kong,” said Benny Tai, an academic who was jailed over his role in the 2014 movement.
Kai Lo, an 18-year-old gluing down signs in a city park, added: “Without the experience five years ago, we could not develop such a belief” on the importance of our freedoms.
In a statement Saturday night, a spokesman for the Hong Kong government said universal suffrage is “enshrined as an ultimate aim” of the city’s basic law.
The Hong Kong government “will assess the situation carefully and take forward constitutional development[s]” with Beijing’s input and according to the law, the statement said.
Protesters assembled the “Lennon Wall” of posters and graffiti to stretch from Victoria Park to Tamar Park, both significant landmarks for recent protests with historic turnouts. The rally Saturday evening was organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, the group that planned the first march against a now-scrapped bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.
As the protest movement has grown in scope and focus, the CHRF has facilitated several huge demonstrations denouncing police brutality and calling for universal suffrage for the semiautonomous territory.
Just 15 minutes after Saturday’s rally began, protesters began to occupy Harcourt Road, the major thoroughfare they took over during the Umbrella Revolution and occupied several times more over the past months of protest.
Protesters including children and the elderly had to walk over grinning portraits of Chinese President Xi when arriving at the rally. Some took extra effort to stomp over the taped-down pictures and scrape their shoes over his face. Speakers blasted a rotation of protest songs that have provided an ever-evolving soundtrack of resistance. Attendees sang along to “Glory to Hong Kong,” a recently written unofficial national anthem, and a version of Sia’s “Chandelier,” the lyrics reworked to admonish the police.
While police fired just 87 canisters of tear gas in 2014, more than 3,000 rounds, along with hundreds of rubber bullets and sponge grenades, have been used against the demonstrators over the past four months.
The use of the noxious gas has become so prevalent that protesters have become adept at quickly extinguishing the spewing canisters — covering them with pot lids or dousing them with water. Police have also deployed specialized trucks that blast demonstrators with high-pressure hoses, the water mixed with chemical irritant and blue dye.
One of protesters’ key demands is for Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to open a fully independent investigation into the police, but she has resisted, arguing that an existing mechanism is sufficient for the task. More people in Hong Kong are increasingly seeing the police as an illegitimate occupying force carrying out Beijing’s repression.
Protests in recent months have reinvigorated Hong Kong’s civil society, which was crushed and lost at the end of the Umbrella Movement. Jack Hui, a 27-year-old administrator at a financial institution, said he felt “hopeless” at the end of the 79-day sit-in because it seemed impossible to keep “pushing forward the democratic revolution.”
“I couldn’t imagine our movement now would last for so long, for more than three months,” he said. “We’re just seeing the beginning of the emergence of the movement.”
Hong Kong protesters have increasingly appealed to the United States for help in their fight for democracy, hoping to leverage geopolitical tensions and an ongoing trade war between China and the United States. This month, Hong Kong activists and academics spoke at a congressional hearing urging the passage of a bill that would seek to impose sanctions on those who curtail the territory’s freedoms.
One of the hearing’s witnesses, American citizen Dan Garrett, an academic and former U.S. government worker, was denied entry into Hong Kong. He said this was the first time his passport was flagged in 20 years of visiting the city and that he was not given a clear reason by immigration authorities.
A spokesman for Hong Kong’s Immigration Department said it does not comment on individual causes and will have to “regard to the circumstances pertaining to each individual case” to decide whether to allow someone entry into the city.
Activists are also making a bid to join Hong Kong’s legislature in elections slated for November. Joshua Wong, who rose to prominence as a leader of the 2014 protests, announced he would run in next month’s local elections for the position of district councilor.
“I’m convinced that democracy will grow from the ground from our community,” Wong, 22, said Saturday morning at a campaign launch event at which he appealed for high voter turnout and said the elections were a way to continue pressure on the Hong Kong government and Beijing. “The battle ahead is a battle for our home and our homeland,” he added.
Timothy McLaughlin and Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.