THOUSANDS of pro-democracy demonstrators marched through Hong Kong’s streets yesterday, in the first major rally since mass protests last year.
Chanting “No fake universal suffrage. I want genuine universal suffrage”, the demonstrators held yellow umbrellas, which became a symbol of the earlier protests when activists wielded them as a defence against police using pepper spray.
The event appeared orderly and peaceful throughout the day.
The annual march is usually held on 1 January but was delayed for a month this year to coincide with the government’s second round of consultations on electoral reform.
The demonstrators oppose the Chinese government’s decision that candidates in the 2017 election for Hong Kong chief executive must be vetted by a largely Beijing-controlled nominating committee before they can stand. The final election plan must be approved by a two-thirds majority in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council before it is submitted to the authorities in Beijing.
Pro-democracy legislators, who hold 40 per cent of the seats, have said they would veto the screening proposal.
Protester Julia Choi said: “This is pseudo universal suffrage – we do not have the rights to elect who we want.”
Organisers said 13,000 people had participated in yesterday’s protest, while police said they counted 8,000 at the march’s peak.
Police had raised no objection to the march, although the formal notice the department issued last weekend stressed that organisers should ensure none of the marchers tried to occupy streets as happened during the mass protests last year. Occupy demonstrations at their peak were attended by tens of thousands of people from all walks of life. There were later violent clashes with police, and the final protest camp was dismantled in December.
One of the march organisers, Daisy Chan, said that although the turnout was lower than expected, it “only shows that Hong Kongers are no longer satisfied with conventional ways of protest” and that people were taking up “new ways to pressure the government”.
However, speaking on local radio, Lam Woon-kwong, of the Executive Council, Hong Kong’s top policy-making body, warned protesters: “You can’t threaten the central authorities.”
Housewife Carol Leung said she was protesting because she was afraid for her eight-year-old son’s future.
“I don’t want him to grow up in a city where he will go out on the street and suddenly be beaten by the police,” she said. “I am afraid that Hong Kong will become like [mainland] China.
“I am pushing him to study harder so he can go overseas for school when he is older.”
Shops and retailers were divided over the protests, however.
Snack shop manager Alan Yu King-bun said: “Many people have become antagonistic to such demonstrations. It’s annoying, it affects our business and, to be honest, they won’t be able to achieve anything.”
Jason Pang, who owns a bag and luggage store, said: “They have an objective, so even if it did affect our business a bit, we’ll still accept it.
“The government must look out for all strata of society, not just their rich friends.”
Thousands of pro-democracy protesters occupied three busy neighbourhoods in Hong Kong for several months last year.