Protesters took to Hong Kong’s streets yesterday for the biggest rally in a decade, with marchers braving heat, rain and long delays to demand full democracy and oppose Chinese control over leadership elections.
At least 510,000 people took part, Johnson Yeung of rally organizer Civil Human Rights Front told a cheering crowd, while police tallied 98,600 at its peak, broadcaster RTHK said. Both estimates are the most for the annual event since 2004.
The protests yesterday came after almost 800,000 people voted in an unofficial referendum against China’s insistence that it vet candidates for the chief executive election in 2017, and three weeks after it released a policy paper that ratcheted tensions with its assertion that the city’s right to autonomy wasn’t inherent.
“Right now a lot of people in Hong Kong feel like they’re frogs in boiling water,” Jessica Chan, a 20-year-old university student. “When so many people come out and take a stand I have hope that things will change.”
Chan, from the Hong Kong Federation of Students, was among thousands of mainly young people who refused to leave Chater Road in the Central financial district as the final protesters finished the march after 11 p.m. local time, vowing to stay until 8 a.m. this morning.
Police began removing the protesters one by one to buses at about 3 a.m., carrying those who refused to cooperate. As of 6 a.m., hundreds of police continued to remove the remaining demonstrators and the street -- near the Asia head offices of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and HSBC Holdings Plc -- remained closed to traffic.
Police will take decisive action to ensure law and order and public peace are maintained, the South China Morning Post reported before the removal of protesters started, citing Kong Man-keung, a spokesman. The force hadn’t issued a notice of no objection, or permission to gather, in relation to the planned sit-in by students, it said.
In a speech earlier in the day at a ceremony to mark the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty from U.K. rule, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, the city’s leader, urged people to avoid doing anything that may undermine Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.
Allowing for public nomination of candidates, which is what the Occupy Central With Love and Peace activist group demanded in its referendum, will be against the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, the Hong Kong government reiterated yesterday in a statement issued in response to the march.
“Politically, such a proposal will unlikely be conducive to forging consensus, and operationally, the feasibility of implementation is questionable,” the government said. “It is unlikely that such a proposal will be adopted.”
Demonstrators gathered in stifling heat at Victoria Park near one of the city’s main shopping districts before starting the march at about 4 p.m. local time. The procession stalled when there was a sudden downpour. At parts of the route, marchers were held up because of traffic congestion, prompting some to demand the police free up more lanes for them as they jostled across barricades.
The march ended at 11:11 p.m. local time, organizer Yeung said. Police approval for the march ended at midnight, meaning protesters who remain may face efforts to remove them.
Two of the city’s best-known pro-democracy leaders, Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho took to the stage and told protesters they will stay with them overnight.
“We’ll fight to the end. We’ve voted, we’ve marched, now we need to stay,” Lee said in a hoarse voice. “There’s no need to be scared of the police. We believe the police will also find their conscience.”
Political parties, including the Civic Party and Democratic Party, set up booths and hung banners along the route which protesters snaked through 20-abreast. The Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned in China, had a marching band.
Groups pushing a variety of causes took part in the peaceful procession through the day, and some people hoisted the colonial Hong Kong flag while gathering around a statue of Queen Victoria, a reminder of Hong Kong’s colonial past.
Many focused on demands for democracy and waved signs with a picture of the city’s leader Leung that read read: “689, hurry and go,” referring to the number of votes that got him elected. Leung was chosen in 2012 by a committee of about 1,200 people, becoming the third chief executive since Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony in 1997.
Under terms agreed between the U.K. and China, Hong Kong enjoys its own freedoms and legal system until 2047 as a special administrative region, under the principle of “One Country, two Systems.”
“The Chinese government is trying to go back on their promises with the white paper and I’m here to take a stand against that,” said Edward Ho, a 17-year-old student.
Leung is expected to submit an electoral reform proposal to Beijing for approval, before starting a second public consultation by year-end. He will submit the final plan to lawmakers.
About 87.8 percent of voters in the referendum, which ended on June 29, said lawmakers should reject any proposal that doesn’t meet international democracy standards.
Occupy Central has threatened mass sit-ins at the city’s financial district should the government fail to meet their demands. Such tactics will paralyze the city, drive away tourists and companies and damage Hong Kong’s reputation as a global financial center, according to tycoons, foreign business leaders, brokers and accounting firms.