HONG KONG: Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters marched through summer rain brandishing colorful art and props in Hong Kong Saturday, expressing their fears the city and its freedoms are being eaten up by China.
The march came hours after President Xi Jinping flew out after a three-day trip to mark 20 years since Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain.
There were sporadic arrests and scuffles during his landmark stay but protesters were given little space to make their voices heard in the midst of an unprecedented security lockdown.
On Saturday afternoon, they were free to express themselves once more as they marched through central Hong Kong from Victoria Park to government offices.
One protester carried a cardboard cutout of Xi holding a yellow umbrella — symbol of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement which brought parts of the city to a standstill.
Others waved pro-independence and colonial British flags, which have become an anti-China emblem.
Rows of punch bags were mounted with the head of Hong Kong’s unpopular ex-leader Leung Chun-ying, who was replaced by incoming chief executive Carrie Lam Saturday.
Some protesters carried a cardboard model of a toilet picturing Leung’s face on the lid and Lam’s face in the bowl, covered with excrement.
“It’s not straightforward to get what we want by just protesting, especially from this heartless government,” said teacher Charlton Cheung, in his 40s.
“But we need to persist to show our fellow citizens we have a shared vision. Maybe one day we will be in big enough numbers that the government can’t ignore,” he added.
Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee, one of five publishers of salacious titles about Beijing leaders who went missing in 2015 and resurfaced in detention on the mainland, joined the rally.
Lam has been in Hong Kong since ducking bail last year and revealing how he had been seized, blindfolded and detained for eight months without a lawyer.
The booksellers’ case tapped into deep seated fears over how far China is reaching into Hong Kong and curbing freedoms.
“We are seeing the power of the police getting bigger, while the rights of the people are only getting smaller,” legislator and activist Nathan Law told AFP.
A prominent theme in this year’s march was the call for the release of cancer-stricken Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was given medical parole earlier this week but is still on the mainland.
Social worker Ceci Chan, in her 30s, said life was “difficult” for Hong Kongers and that Xi should not have hidden behind security barricades if he wanted to connect with residents.
“Hong Kong is a very great city. It’s not good for anyone for it to just become any Chinese city,” she said.