- Smaller crowds may show challenge for democracy activists
- Rival protest plan showed split among those promoting reform
Thousands of protesters marched against Hong Kong’s top leader on Friday, complaining that China is encroaching on their freedoms and urging political reform, in a demonstration that was smaller than in some previous years.
“Hong Kong qualities of freedom and democracy are being invaded by the Chinese mainland day by day,” said protester Stanley Li, 55. “The situation keeps worsening.”
Missing from the event was Lam Wing-kee, a bookseller who spoke out last month about being detained in China. He feared for his safety after receiving threats in recent days, according to a protest organizer.
The organizers put the turnout in sweltering afternoon heat at 111,000 people, up from last year but down from 510,000 in 2014. The police said the protest peaked at 19,300 -- slightly less than the estimate for 2015. Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Program put the number at 23,000 to 29,000, news service RTHK reported.
Smaller turnouts for protests may highlight challenges for groups trying to build a united front against Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying as the Asian financial hub heads into a year of intense politicking. Fractures emerged in the pro-democracy camp after student-led protests two years ago ended without securing concessions from Beijing on the method for electing the city’s leader.
Emily Wong, 28, said she was disappointed at the turnout. Li said he felt obliged to march and didn’t expect the event to have any effect.
Organizers of the protest marking Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule had focused their ire at Leung, whose term comes up for renewal in March. Backed by Beijing, but unpopular at home, the chief executive is criticized by democracy advocates and some in the pro-business establishment for failing to bridge divides in the wake of the Occupy protests that paralyzed commercial districts in 2014.
In a speech Friday after a flag-raising ceremony, Leung called for unity, saying people should “set aside differences, find common ground, and try our best to reach a consensus.”
Leung’s opponents want to push the Chinese government to consider an alternative leader for the former British colony. That effort is complicated by the emergence of new “localist” groups, who advocate a more confrontational approach against Beijing, sapping support from mainstream democrats while drawing accusations of “separatism” from the government.
Several localist groups had refused to participate in Friday’s march and planned a rival protest against what they say is Chinese encroachment on their autonomy.
Friday marked the 19th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule under a deal with the U.K. that preserved its free speech, capitalist financial system and independent courts for 50 years. China’s commitment to that agreement has faced questions, especially after five Hong Kong men who sold books critical of the ruling Communist Party disappeared last year and reemerged in the custody of authorities on the mainland.
The bookseller Lam had been expected to lead the march from Victoria Park to the city’s government offices in Admiralty. Instead, his safety concerns kept him away, according to a statement on Friday from Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, 22, a convener for the event’s organizer, Civil Human Rights Front.
In September, Hong Kong will hold its first legislative elections since the Occupy protests. The vote could reveal the extent of divisions in the democratic camp and the level of support for the localist movement.
Some pro-establishment voices have joined the criticism of Leung, urging support for “Anyone But CY,” or ABC, when a Beijing-controlled committee of 1,200 city insiders select the next chief executive in March. James Tien, honorary chairman of the pro-business Liberal Party, and Ricky Wong, chairman of Hong Kong Television Network Ltd., have expressed support for finding alternative candidates.
Leung told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post this week that he hadn’t yet decided whether to seek another five-year term. Those who predict his resignation, “keep proving themselves wrong,” he said.
In his speech Friday, Leung urged people to focus on the economy, while defending the government’s attempts to control property prices and to help society’s “have-nots.” Leung said the government would foster communication between “China and Hong Kong’s different societies and political groups,” without being more specific.
China’s top official for Hong Kong, National People’s Congress Chairman Zhang Dejiang, expressed satisfaction with Leung’s performance during a visit to the city in May. Zhang urged the city to focus on economic success instead of “distractions” such as demands for greater autonomy.
The rise of the localist movement has made it harder for Chinese leaders to abandon Leung, said Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham in England. Doing so could look like a concession to those seeking independence, he said.
“The game has changed,” Tsang said. “It’s not because Beijing loves CY Leung.”