July 1, 2014


[Beijing had promised Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” before Britain returned the territory to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and the release of the bluntly worded white paper has triggered a furious backlash. That backlash has coincided with an contentious debate over how to introduce universal suffrage – one person, one vote – for the chief executive to be chosen in elections in 2017.]
By Keith Bradsher
HONG KONG — Hundreds of thousands of people held one of the largest marches in Hong Kong’s history on Tuesday to demand greater democracy, defying intermittent tropical downpours and Beijing’s dwindling tolerance for challenges to its control.
A nearly solid river of protesters — most of them young — poured out of Victoria Park through the afternoon and into the evening, heading for the heart of the city. The sea of protesters showed their determination by waiting unflinchingly and with barely a complaint for hours under a succession of deluges just for their chance to walk through the skyscraper-lined canyons of downtown Hong Kong, carrying banners calling for the introduction of full democracy and “Say No to Communist China.”
The march came days after nearly 800,000 residents participated in an informal vote on making the selection of the city’s top official more democratic, a vote that Beijing dismissed as illegal. Tuesday’s demonstration also follows the release three weeks ago by China’s cabinet of a so-called white paper that asserted broad central government authority over Hong Kong, angering many residents
Beijing had promised Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” before Britain returned the territory to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and the release of the bluntly worded white paper has triggered a furious backlash. That backlash has coincided with an contentious debate over how to introduce universal suffrage – one person, one vote – for the chief executive to be chosen in elections in 2017.
Tuesday’s march appeared to rival in size the largest democracy march in Hong Kong’s history, held in 2003 when the combination of the outbreak of the deadly SARS virus and a six-year decline in the housing market produced widespread discontent. The 2003 protest drew at least 500,000 people, according to organizers, while the police estimated that 350,000 were on the streets at the peak of that seven-hour march.
The organizers of Tuesday’s march initially said that their gathering had exceeded the crowd in 2003, and later said that a million of Hong Kong’s 7 million people had participated. There was no immediate estimate from the police.
The march stayed peaceful through the afternoon, but tempers began to fray by early evening. The police accused the organizers of not letting the front of the march move fast enough, but limited the march to half of a six-lane artery through the middle of the city, trying to keep the other side open for traffic and emergency vehicles. A rancorous crowd formed after sunset near the Sogo department store in the retail heart of Hong Kong island, demanding that the police open the other half of the road; the police resisted and reinforced their ranks with three rows of officers.
July 1 is a public holiday in Hong Kong, and large-scale protests on the date have become an annual tradition ever since the giant march in 2003, when hundreds of thousands marched to protest plans by the local government to introduce stringent internal security regulations at Beijing’s request. Those
In addition to rivaling the 2003 march, Tuesday’s event was visibly larger than a vigil held June 4 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, which drew 99,500 people, according to the police, and “over 180,000,” by organizers’ estimate.
Democracy protesters and Beijing-appointed government officials alike have become more confrontational here recently. That has led many to predict that some kind of a showdown is inevitable, if not in the protest unfolding into the evening on Tuesday then in the coming months.
Demonstrators are younger and less interested in legal compromises than Hong Kong protesters have been in the past. At the same time, Beijing’s local allies have also taken a harder line. They have echoed a shift in mainland China, where President Xi Jinping has ratcheted up detentions and prosecutions of human rights advocates and other activists, as well as allegedly corrupt officials, since assuming power in November 2012.
Any public suggestion that the People’s Liberation Army might intervene here was politically unacceptable until very recently, but it is now raised as a possibility by some of Beijing’s advisers. “A showdown is getting more and more inevitable by the day, and some degree of violence is imminent,” said Lau Nai-keung, one of Beijing’s most prominent allies in Hong Kong. “If worst comes to worst, the P.L.A. will come out of its barracks.”
Mr. Lau is one of the six Hong Kong members of the Basic Law Committee, a group under the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Beijing that sets policies relating to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Anson Chan, a prominent democracy advocate who was the second-highest official in the Hong Kong government in the years immediately before and after Britain returned it to Chinese sovereignty, said it was conceivable that a few radicals might cause violence during the demonstration on Tuesday. But she voiced more concern that the government might plant provocateurs in the crowd to stage violent incidents in the hope of turning public opinion against democracy demands.
“I don’t put it beyond the pro-Beijing forces to plant troublemakers,” she said.
As the march got underway, the crowds of people surging toward Victoria Park threatened to clog the nearby Tin Hau and Causeway Bay subway stations. Many were in their teens and 20s, some carrying posters demanding genuine universal suffrage.
Several people said they had made a special effort to come to this year’s march, despite having stayed away in past years. “It’s because of the actions done by the Chinese government,” said Ian Tseng, an office worker in his 20s. “The white paper, everything, makes us all feel unhappy,” he said.
As the protest began, the Tsuen Wan Line subway line carried groups of families, everyone with a backpack, heading to Victoria Park.
Among them was May Hui, 41, who was taking her two daughters, ages 15 and 10, to join the march, along with members of two other families. She said the so-called white paper was motivating her to come out this year to teach her children about peaceful demonstrations.
“It is our right,” said Ms. Hui, a secondary school teacher. “I want to teach the kids to know what a march is.”
“A lot of people are not satisfied,” she said.
The crowd joining the march from Victoria Park was a sweating, sometimes cacophonous distillation of the complaints that many Hong Kong people direct at their city government and its overseers in Beijing. Many held banners and shouted slogans demanding true choice in elections. Occasionally, a flag of colonial Hong Kong - a gesture of rejection of mainland authority — bobbed up above the crowd.
One member of the crowd, a teacher who gave only his surname, Chin, said people understood the need to defy Beijing by coming out in large numbers. “They say they won’t listen no matter how many, but we think the more Hong Kong people are on the street, the more the Chinese government will come around. It’s a numbers game.”
He and four friends were busy assembling a banner accusing Hong Kong officials of corruption. He said he did not want to give his full name because he was a teacher and feared his school would be unhappy.
Moderate groups, including demonstrators like Mrs. Chan, were among the first to march to the center of the city, and had said in advance that they planned to go home upon arriving there. By contrast, radical groups like the one known as People Power, with histories of scuffles with the police, were hanging back in the park so as to arrive at the center of government later in the evening.
The police here have a global reputation for managing large crowds peacefully. A former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, said during his tenure that the United States had learned from Hong Kong’s crowd-control methods.
In an incident Tuesday morning that highlighted the police department’s diplomacy in handling protests, a demonstrator who leapt atop a rickety steel barrier to hang a small banner from a street sign was stabilized there by a female police officer and several colleagues. They braced the protester’s legs to make sure she did not fall, then cheerfully persuaded her to climb down after several minutes, and helped her do so.
The 2003 protest was notable in that no one was arrested, and there were no reported incidents of vandalism or other crimes — an outcome that very few other cities could match if a similar-size crowd of dissatisfied people took to the streets.
The peaceful nature of that demonstration was dictated, to a considerable extent, by the participation of people of all ages. Many of the 2003 protesters — like Paul Chan, then a 45-year-old construction worker, and Sarah Ng, a 67-year-old seamstress — had never attended a demonstration before, not even the large Hong Kong protest in 1989 in response to the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
By contrast, Hong Kong’s democracy movement now is being steered much more by the young, and sometimes by the very young.
“We believe to change society, we need not our words to appeal to politicians but to use activism to pressure them,” said Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old leader of Scholarism, a student activist group.
Most luxury retailers in downtown Hong Kong lowered steel shutters over entrances and windows ahead of Tuesday’s march, while the Sogo department store sealed an exit from the Causeway Bay subway that leads through a lower floor of the store.
High inequality in income and wealth and a lack of economic opportunities for the young appear to have increased discontent here, leaders across the political spectrum agree. Government statistics show that unemployment stood this spring at 10.9 percent for residents aged 15 to 19, and 4.6 percent for those aged 20 to 29. But many critics contend that the real rate is much higher.
A local newspaper documented last year that census officers were rewarded based on the number of interviews they conducted and that they may have tried to persuade people not to say that they were unemployed, because it would prolong the interview. The government began a review of its methods.
The protests Tuesday began early in the morning, during a flag-raising ceremony to mark the seventeenth anniversary of the return to Chinese rule. A small crowd on a nearby road carried a black coffin, labeled to signify the death of the “one country, two systems” approach that symbolizes Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.
China had pledged in a bilateral agreement with Britain in 1984 to respect a high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong after the 1997 handover. But in the so-called white paper released by Beijing last month, China’s cabinet glossed over that and emphasized that Hong Kong was a local unit of the People’s Republic of China — an assertion that appears to have fanned support here for greater democracy.
Beijing has said that it “may” allow universal suffrage, the principle of one vote for each adult, in the next election for chief executive in 2017. But Beijing has made it clear that it wants to be able to vet those who appear on the ballot.
Democracy advocates are divided on how far to go in challenging this. Groups like Scholarism are calling for “civil nomination,” in which the broader public would be able to nominate essentially anyone. Others, like Mrs. Chan, the former Hong Kong official, call for closely following the Basic Law, which specifies that a nomination committee control access to the ballot, but they want that committee structured in such a way that no one is excluded from seeking office.
A 1,200-member elections committee dominated by Beijing loyalists currently chooses the chief executive, who is then appointed to a five-year term by Beijing.
Occupy Central With Love and Peace, another pro-democracy group, has been threatening to fill the streets of Hong Kong’s downtown later this year and engage in a campaign of civil disobedience until the government issues a broadly acceptable plan for greater democracy. The group held a vote last month in which nearly a quarter of Hong Kong’s registered voters chose to participate, selecting among three different options, all of which included civil nomination.
“Not all of them would join the civil disobedience action, but I would say that all of them, at least they are sympathetic with the movement, with the civil disobedience action,” said Benny Tai, the leader of Occupy Central. “If the government refused to seriously consider the demand, this group of people, more of them will change from sympathetic to active support, and the sympathetic people may also start all kinds of noncooperative actions — and just think about how can a government govern if the whole society refuses to cooperate with you?”
The informal vote was held partly online, and it became the target of a large-scale attack, an Internet denial-of-service assault organized by a still-unknown entity. Mark Simon, the commercial director of Next Media, a pro-democracy conglomerate of newspaper, television and Internet businesses in Hong Kong and Taiwan, said that the company came under heavy online attack on Tuesday.
Business groups have been caught in the middle of the political dispute, facing heavy pressure from the Hong Kong government to issue statements denouncing protesters, but also calls from the public to stand up for political rights.
The local offices of the so-called Big Four accounting firms — Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers — took out a paid ad on Friday in local newspapers warning that the Occupy Central protest could disrupt the city’s financial sector. Each of the four declined to comment on Monday.
Another ad appeared on Monday in the newspaper Apple Daily, which is published by Next Media. The ad was signed by “a group of Big 4 staff who love Hong Kong” and said that “the bosses’ statement” did not represent their views.
Michael Forsythe, Chris Buckley, Jonah Kessel, Hilda Wang and Alan Wong contributed reporting.
@ The New York Times