HONG KONG: Thousands protested in Hong Kong on Sunday against plans by pro-democracy activists to paralyze the city center with a mass sit-in unless China grants acceptable electoral reforms.
Public discontent in the semi-autonomous Chinese city is at its highest for years, with concern at perceived interference by Beijing and growing divisions over how Hong Kong’s leader should be chosen in 2017 under the planned reforms.
Pro-democracy campaigners from the Occupy Central group have pledged to mobilize protesters to block roads in the Central financial district later this year if authorities reject the public’s right to nominate candidates for the chief executive post.
But the movement has been strongly criticized by Beijing and city officials as illegal, radical and potentially violent.
Organizers of Sunday’s rally, the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, said the silent majority of the city’s seven million residents do not support the Occupy movement.
“We want to let the world know that we want peace, we want democracy, but please, do not threaten us, do not try to turn this place into a place of violence,” alliance co-founder Robert Chow told Agence France-Presse.
Organizers said more than 120,000 people had signed up to indicate they would attend the rally. Thousands wearing red clothes and waving Chinese flags filled the starting point in Victoria Park when a march began shortly after 1:30 p.m. (5:30 a.m. Manila time).
“I am here to oppose Occupy, as simple as that. It is a bad thing for young people,” a 70-year-old retired chef, who only gave his surname Wong, told Agence France-Presse.
“I don’t know how to give a view on democracy, it’s high-level politics. I just know if there is no peace there is no prosperity,” a 40-year-old construction worker surnamed Kwok told Agence France-Presse, while holding a Chinese flag.
But some participants in the afternoon march, attended by several groups with ties to different Chinese provinces, were unsure why they were there.
“I come here to play, to buy things” a participant identified as a tourist by Cable Television news said when asked why she was attending the rally. She was promptly led away by a man who refused to answer questions.
An 18-year-old Shenzhen resident who had arrived in the city that morning told Agence France-Presse he “was not very sure” why he was taking part, and only attended because his friend had asked him to.
Shrine for peace
Chow said the Occupy movement had “stepped over the line.”
“What they are trying to say is that if China does not bow to them, then they will occupy Central, they are going to turn the whole place into some sort of a battleground,” he said.
The British colony was handed back to China in 1997 under an agreement that guarantees freedoms and civil liberties including the right to protest.
Hong Kong’s leader is currently chosen by a pro-Beijing committee.
China says that all residents will be allowed to vote for the next chief executive in 2017, but that a nominating committee must choose the candidates.
Pro-democracy advocates say this means Beijing will be able to ensure a sympathetic slate of candidates.
An unofficial referendum organized by Occupy activists saw the majority of 800,000 people who voted supporting reform packages that would allow public nomination.
Organizers said a July pro-democracy march following the referendum was joined by over half a million. Statisticians from the University of Hong Kong estimated between 122,000 and 172,000 people took part.
In a counter move, an Alliance petition campaign supported by pro-Beijing groups and officials has so far collected some 1.4 million signatures, according to the group.
“I am . . . opposed to using illegal means including ‘occupying Central’, which is designed to be illegal, to achieve universal suffrage,” Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying told reporters on Friday after signing the petition.