HONG KONG: Protesters gathered in Hong Kong Wednesday calling for universal suffrage and an end to arrests of activists in China as a top Beijing official visits the city.
The three-day trip by Zhang Dejiang, who chairs China’s communist-controlled legislature, is the first by such a senior official in four years and comes as concerns grow that freedoms are under threat in the semi-autonomous city.
Although ostensibly in town to speak at an economic conference, Zhang’s trip is widely seen as an attempt to build bridges across the widening political divide and to gauge whether Beijing should back the city’s unpopular leader Leung Chun-ying to stand for a second term.
It comes as frustration over lack of reform has sparked a fledgling independence movement condemned by authorities in Hong Kong and China.
Zhang spoke at the economic forum Wednesday morning and will meet with pro-democracy lawmakers in the evening in a rare conciliatory move.
He kicked off his visit Tuesday by promising to listen to political demands from across society.
But opponents have criticized Zhang for what they called “tokenistic” diplomacy and slammed Hong Kong authorities for putting parts of the city into a security lockdown for his visit.
Roads around Zhang’s hotel and the convention center hosting the conference have been cordoned off by water-filled barricades and protesters funneled into designated areas, out of sight.
Around 100 protesters marched to one of the protest areas Wednesday morning, vastly outnumbered by police—thousands of officers have been mobilized to protect Zhang.
They called for the “end of dictatorship,” fully-free elections, and the release of Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese Nobel peace laureate jailed on the mainland.
“Our requests are very clear, we do not welcome Zhang,” said John Leung, 30, of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.
Rival groups of pro-China demonstrators waved national flags and heated shouting matches ensued between the two sides.
Democracy protesters said they expected higher numbers for an evening rally.
Some said fear of a backlash had kept numbers away in the morning.
“I think more people are scared of the police,” said Alexandra Wong, 60, a retired accountant. “They do what they want.”
Hong Kong police were criticized for heavy-handed treatment of protesters during massive pro-democracy rallies, which brought parts of the city to a standstill in 2014.
Police arrested seven members of the pro-democracy League of Social Democrats party on Tuesday for unfurling protest banners on hills and flyovers.
They also wrestled one leading pro-democracy activist to the ground near Zhang’s hotel as he tried to breach a barrier.
Human Rights Watch said Wednesday authorities had “sharply limited” the public’s opportunities to voice criticism of Zhang’s visit.
It also said Hong Kong officials should challenge Zhang “to make concrete commitments to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy on human rights and democratic rule.”
Hong Kong is semi-autonomous after being handed back to China by Britain in 1997 and enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland, but there are concerns Beijing interference is growing.