Tens of thousands of people braved typhoon rains in Hong Kong to demand China live up to its promise to allow fully democratic elections there in 2017, amid mounting fears of increased meddling by Beijing’s Communist Party leaders.
The former British colony returned to Chinese rule on 1 July, 1997, with the promise of universal suffrage as an “ultimate aim” in its mini-constitution, making it potentially the first place on Chinese soil to enjoy fully democratic elections.
Yesterday, undeterred by the lashing rain, protesters marched and chanted, some carrying British colonial Hong Kong flags and pro-democracy banners. Organisers of the protest said 430,000 people turned up; police estimated 66,000.
Younger activists in Hong Kong have become increasingly politicised. Surveys show they identify themselves more as Hong Kong citizens than Chinese nationals – a trend that alarms Beijing, which is eager for the city to show more “patriotism” to the motherland.
Despite China’s pledge to allow a direct poll for the city’s leadership in 2017, recent signs from senior Chinese officials have raised concern that Beijing may somehow try to rig the rules to screen out opposition candidates from taking part.
“I’m very pessimistic,” said Brian Tam, 21, a student waving a Union Flag. “The Chinese government says they will select candidates, which is not the true definition of universal suffrage.”
Qiao Xiaoyang, chairman of the law committee of China’s parliament, said in March that any candidates who confronted Beijing would not be acceptable.
Even before thousands of people massed in a central park for yesterday’s rally, there were unusual signs of tension elsewhere.
Executives of the popular Apple Daily, known for its anti-China, pro-democracy stance, said tens of thousands of copies of two editions of the newspaper had been burned in recent days by masked men targeting distribution points.
The home of the paper’s owner, Jimmy Lai, was rammed by a car; the assailants also left a machete, an axe and a threatening message in the drive. Mr Lai’s group has offered a reward of HK$1 million (about £84,700) for tracing those responsible.
And activist legislator Leung Kwok-hung said he was threatened by an anonymous phone caller on Saturday who told him to avoid the march or “face the consequences”, but he still joined the protest, shouting: “Universal suffrage now.”
The march is held every year, but this year’s event is being seen as a forerunner to a wider campaign of choreographed civil disobedience over the next year.
The Occupy Central movement is demanding firm government proposals towards 2017 and is planning to shut down Hong Kong’s financial district with a mass rally on 1 July next year – sparking alarm in Beijing.
“We can see for sure that people are committed,” said Benny Tai, one of the organisers of Occupy Central.
Yesterday’s march took place with Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, Leung Chun-ying, battling slumping popularity ratings and a series of scandals involving his cabinet.
Soon after taking office, Mr Leung, a self-made millionaire who trained as a property surveyor, was hit by a scandal involving illegal additions to his mansion. Soon after, he outraged parents by trying to introduce Chinese patriotism classes. And just last week, Mr Leung’s first development secretary, Mak Chai-kwong, was convicted in a rent fraud scam along with another government official.
A poll on Friday showed nearly half of Hong Kong residents had no confidence Mr Leung’s performance would improve in the coming year.
Mr Leung said Hong Kong would begin consultations on the 2017 elections “at an appropriate time”.
The director of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, said Hong Kong needed to be “harmonious and rational” but said the protests were a sign Hong Kong still enjoyed “full freedoms and rights”.