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HK sees largest protest since local elections

First time organisers of earlier million-strong marches received approval for rally

HONG KONG: Vast crowds of black-clad demonstrators thronged Hong Kong yesterday in the largest anti-government protests since local elections last month that boosted the pro-democracy movement seeking to curb controls by China.

It was the first time since August that the Civil Human Rights Front - organiser of million-strong marches earlier in the year - had received authorities' permission for a rally.

It estimated turnout of 800,000 while police offered a figure of 183,000.

Chants of "Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!" echoed as demonstrators, from students to professionals and the elderly, marched from Victoria Park in the bustling shopping district towards the financial area.

As night fell, the protestors switched on their mobile phone torches, creating a glittering carpet of lights that stretched far into the distance, their chants bouncing off the towering skyscrapers above. Some protesters spray-painted anti-Beijing grafitti on a Bank of China building. Riot police stood on guard, restrained as protesters yelled "dogs" and "cockroaches".

The former British colony of 7.4 million people reverted to Chinese rule in 1997. It is governed under a "One Country, Two Systems" formula guaranteeing freedoms not allowed in mainland China, but many fear Beijing is tightening the screws.

"It's Christmas time soon but we're not in the mood to celebrate anymore," said Lawrence, a 23-year-old student.

He held a poster saying: "My 2020 wish is universal suffrage", a reference to demands for an open vote on the city leader, currently the unpopular Beijing-backed Carrie Lam.

China blames the six months of unrest on interference by foreign governments, including the US and Britain.

At Sunday's protest, chants of "five demands, not one less" rang out, referring to demands ranging from Ms Lam's resignation to an amnesty for detainees.

"I will fight for freedom until I die because I am a Hong Konger," said June, a 40-year-old mother dressed in black seated on the grass in Victoria Park.

Police said they arrested another 11 people, aged 20 to 63, confiscating weapons including army knives, firecrackers, bullets and a semi-automatic pistol, the first seizure of a handgun during the protests.

ESCALATING VIOLENCE

Once rare for Hong Kong, violence has escalated throughout the year, as protesters have torched vehicles and buildings, hurled petrol bombs and vandalised shopping malls.

Police have responded with tear gas, water cannons and, at times, live fire.

Protests coalesced in June over a now-shelved extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial, then evolved into broader democracy calls.

Since then, Hong Kong has seen more than 900 demonstrations, processions and public meetings, many ending in violent confrontations. Nearly 6,000 people have been arrested. - REUTERS

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