Hundreds of police cleared protesters from Hong Kong’s business district today after the biggest march in a decade, held to oppose Chinese control of elections, turned into an overnight sit-in.
Police have arrested 511 people for illegal gathering and obstructing traffic at Chater Road. This morning, police officers carried protesters to buses behind barricades erected near the Mandarin Oriental hotel, clearing the area by 9 a.m.
The demonstrations provide a foretaste of plans by activist group Occupy Central With Love and Peace to hold a larger sit-in if the government’s proposal for 2017 leadership elections falls short of public demands for full democracy. The rally yesterday drew more than a half-million people, according to the organizers, after China raised tension with a policy paper asserting 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 member of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, who was among the Chater Road protesters. “When so many people come out and take a stand I have hope that things will change.”
Several thousand mainly young people had vowed to remain on Chater Road in Central district -- near the Asia head offices of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and HSBC Holdings Plc (5) -- until 8 a.m. this morning after the rally.
Love and Peace
The rally yesterday came after almost 800,000 people voted in an unofficial referendum organized by Occupy Central against China’s insistence that it vet candidates for the 2017 election. An independent estimate by the University of Hong Kong put the number of people who marched yesterday between 154,000 to 172,000, the highest since 2004.
“It seems that the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong are not going to give way,” said Chung Kim-wah, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Department of Applied Social Science. “If that’s the case and with the civil referendum, it seems that the pro-democracy camp is also not going to compromise. The gap is widening.”
Occupy Central has threatened mass sit-ins at the city’s financial district should the government fail to meet their demands. Accounting firms including KPMG LLP and Deloitte LLP, the Hong Kong Securities Professionals Association, the Canadian, Indian and Italian chambers of commerce and Asia’s richest man Li Ka-shing are among those who’ve said such tactics would paralyze the city, drive away tourists and companies and damage Hong Kong’s reputation as a global financial center.
Police began removing the protesters one by one to buses at about 3 a.m. after repeatedly asking them to leave. The sit-in was organized by the Hong Kong Federation of Students.
“We need to fight to make change!” the students chanted through the night. “Hope is with the people,” they said.
The student sit-in and the police action have provided the Occupy Central movement with a view on how events would proceed should the larger protest take place, Chan Kin-man, one of the leaders, said on Cable Television.
At least 510,000 people took part in the march, Johnson Yeung of rally organizer Civil Human Rights Front told a cheering crowd, while police tallied 98,600 at its peak, broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong said. Both estimates are the most for the annual event since 2004.
“Both the protest and the sit-in show how determined Hong Kong people are in the pursuit of genuine universal suffrage,” said Ma Ngok, an associate professor for political sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “If the government continues to ignore these demand and come up with a proposal that contains screening of candidates, it’s going to draw even more opposition from the public.”
In a speech yesterday 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.
The city should be led by people who love China and Hong Kong, a front-page commentary in the government-controlled People’s Daily said today, echoing the policy paper.
Allowing for public nomination of candidates, which is what the Occupy Central 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.
“We do notice the rising risk of political tension in Hong Kong and its possible impact on economic fundamentals,” Raymond Yeung, senior economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. wrote in a note. “The rising populism has dragged the government administration’s efficiency, causing budget standoff and deadlocks in the city’s legislative council.”
Two of the city’s best-known pro-democracy leaders, Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho, told protesters at Chater Road last night that they would stay with them.
“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.”
Lee was later shown on television being carried away from the protest site by police officers.
Demonstrators yesterday 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. 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.
Groups pushing a variety of causes took part in the peaceful procession through the day.
Many focused on demands for democracy and waved signs with a picture of the city’s leader Leung that 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.”
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.
The government will address the people’s demands in the public consultation, Starry Lee, a member of the city’s executive council said, RTHK reported.
To contact the reporter on this story: Natasha Khan in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org