HONG KONG: Thousands were set to gather for a pro-democracy march on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China Wednesday, but organizers said turnout at the annual event would be down as momentum wanes after nearly a year of rallies.
Last year’s march saw huge numbers as discontent surged over restrictions by Beijing on how Hong Kong chooses its next leader, with organizers saying a record 510,000 attended.
But after more than two months of street rallies at the end of last year and further protests in the lead-up to the vote on the controversial election reform package last month, fewer people were expected o turn out Wednesday as campaigners worked out their next steps.
The government’s plan to allow the public to vote for the city’s chief executive for the first time in 2017 was derided as “fake democracy” by the opposition as it stuck to Beijing’s ruling that candidates must be vetted by a loyalist committee.
It was voted down by pro-democracy lawmakers in June.
“Everyone anticipates a lower turnout than last year… because the momentum has slowed down after the veto over political reform,” said Johnson Yeung of the Civil Human Rights Front, the march organizers.
But Yeung insisted numbers were not important and that this year’s march was a chance to reshape the democracy movement’s message, which has splintered since the end of the mass street rallies in December.
“Right now people are asking ‘what next?’ after the veto. We hope the march can set the political agenda and give citizens a chance to discuss how to bring the democratic movement forward.”
This year is the 18th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China by Britain in 1997 and the annual march is traditionally an outpouring of protest directed at both China’s communist government and the local leadership.
It comes at a time when Hong Kong is deeply polarized with fragmentation in both the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps.
In a speech Wednesday at a flag-raising ceremony to mark the handover anniversary, current leader Leung Chun-ying criticized lawmakers who had rejected the government’s reform package.
Leung also used instability in Europe to argue that other issues should now take precedence over democratic reforms.
“As the experience of some European democracies shows, democratic systems and procedures are no panacea for economic and livelihood issues,” he said.
‘Grave of Hong Kong’
A small group of protesters near the ceremony carried a cardboard coffin marked “Grave of Hong Kong – Date of Death: 1997” and burned a portrait of Leung.
One was detained amid reports that he had burned a Hong Kong flag, which is an offence in the city, but police were unable to confirm the reason for his arrest.
The democracy camp has struggled to stay united since last year’s rallies failed to win concessions on the reform package.
Student groups have gone their separate ways and young campaigners are increasingly critical of the path taken by mainstream pro-democracy lawmakers.
Some support a newly emerging “localist” stance that semi-autonomous Hong Kong should seek increasing independence from Beijing, rather than campaigning for democracy in China.
The pro-establishment side was also left in disarray after a chaotic vote on the election package which saw the majority of the lawmakers supposed to back the bill staging a mistimed walkout, meaning just eight votes were cast in its favor.
“The most important thing they (the people on the march) need to demonstrate to the Hong Kong public is that the pan-democrats are united,” said Lam.