Beneath an undulating roof of umbrellas that covered streets for kilometres, Hong Kong demonstrators delivered an emphatic show of support on Sunday for protests that have now continued for more than two months.
In that time, demonstrations have shut down the city’s airport, snarled traffic and led to violent confrontations with police in one of the world’s most important financial centres, which is beginning to show signs of economic pain from the continuing turmoil. But the sea of people marching under heavy rain on Sunday offered a ringing endorsement of the protesters’ demands for change, and signalled that demonstrations are unlikely to fade soon.
Organizers estimated that more than 1.7 million people came out to march in defiance of a police ban, joining a peaceful rebuttal to the Beijing central government that has labelled the protests an extremist movement that has shown “signs of terrorism.”
“With this huge number, we can say that these people, the people of Hong Kong, have revitalized and also reauthorized the campaign,” said Bonnie Leung, vice-convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized the march.
“We have the people’s support,” she said.
The number of demonstrators sent a “pretty clear and loud” message that “Hong Kong people are not happy with the current situation,” said Jeremy Tan, a pro-democracy member of the city’s Legislative Council.
Protesters have demanded the full cancellation of a proposed extradition bill, an independent investigation into police use of force and more democratic freedoms.
Police released a far smaller estimate of the crowd size Sunday, saying just 128,000 people had attended the original meeting point, at the city’s Victoria Park. In a statement released late Sunday night, the Hong Kong government criticized demonstrators for occupying roads and “reiterated that it was most important to restore social order as soon as possible. The Government will begin sincere dialogue with the public, mend social rifts and rebuild social harmony when everything has calmed down.”
But the peaceful Sunday may not mark a turn away from the violent clashes with police that have clouded Hong Kong streets in tear gas and pepper spray. Instead, some of the city’s most provocative voices saw the large turnout as validation of more aggressive tactics demonstrators have employed in recent weeks.
“The majority of Hong Kong people are not backing down. They still support whatever means the protesters used in the past, and I think it’s a very important signal that we are still keeping up the momentum,” said Andy Chan, a political activist disqualified for running for office because of his openly pro-independence position. He is currently on bail after being arrested on Aug. 2 by police who said they found explosives and weapons in a Hong Kong apartment. He has not been charged with any crime, and has continued to call for protesters to stand against police.
”We need to defend our freedom,” Mr. Chan said. “If we do not insist and resist – then instead we will go home, the movement will be at an end and many people will get caught arrested and go to jail. So we can’t stop.”
Sunday night brought no further clashes. Hundreds of black-clad protesters – some wearing helmets and gas masks – assembled around Hong Kong’s government complex, but by midnight most had dispersed, leaving the city with its first weekend free of tear gas in a month.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland condemned violence in the territory, in a joint statement with her European Union counterpart, Federica Mogherini, on Saturday. They voiced support for Hong Kong’s autonomy and demonstrators’ right to peaceful assembly, but urged restraint in the wake of “unacceptable violent incidents.”
In response, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Canada called for Ms. Freeland to “immediately stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs,” and said the Canadian government “should be cautious on its words and deeds” when it comes to Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, some seeking to send a more peaceful signal went to unusual lengths during Sunday’s daytime march, displaying symbols of Communist China as an olive branch to Beijing-linked officials who have decried “ultra-radicals” for staging “the ugliest riot in the world” and making themselves enemies of the people. The rhetoric from Beijing has been augmented by a gathering of military trucks and armoured personnel carriers in the nearby mainland city of Shenzhen, indicating that Beijing is prepared to use force if necessary to quell unrest in the city.
In response, Oscar Lau held high a Chinese flag Sunday in the midst of the mass gathering at Victoria Park.
“I know tensions are high, so I’m here holding this flag to calm the situation,” said Mr. Lau, a university research worker. His voice quavered as he spoke. In a protest movement that has seen at least one Chinese flag tossed into the sea, the five-star emblem has become a provocative symbol.
But Mr. Lau wanted to underscore that, unlike their portrayal in Chinese media, most protesters have no desire to sever Hong Kong from China. “I want to send a message to the Hong Kong government, the mainland government and mainland people that what we are demanding is not independence,” he said.
China’s state media have reported extensively on violence among protesters, as well as demonstrations in support of Beijing. On Sunday night, the People’s Daily featured reports on a pro-Beijing rally on Saturday in which organizers estimated 470,000 people came out to decry violence among protesters. The state-run newspaper made no mention, however, of the Sunday rally.
Nor did it mention Crystal Ting, who joined the assembly with a large poster-board featuring a photo of a young Mao Zedong and some of his famous quotes. For those in power that fail their people, “the masses will always have a reason to get them out,” read one quote from Chairman Mao. “A revolution is not a dinner party … a revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another,” read another.
Ms. Ting, a school worker, knew that a single poster would do little to counteract the narratives of China’s powerful propaganda apparatus.
But “we have to change what the people in China think,” she said, hopefully. “They shouldn’t think that all we want is to fight for independence and go against the government.”
And, she added, the very father of Communist China has said people “should have the right to fight for our justice and freedom.”
With reports from The Canadian Press
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.