Tens of thousands of protesters, some waving British imperial flags and denouncing Chinese “colonists”, marched through torrential rain in Hong Kong on Monday to clamor for universal suffrage on the 16th anniversary of the city’s return to mainland rule.
Tropical Storm Rumbia brought drenching and strong winds to the march, now an annual outpouring of discontent directed at both China’s communist government and the semi-autonomous territory’s local leadership.
The parade route from the city’s Victoria Park to the skyscrapers of the high-rent Central district was a sea of umbrellas as well as banners — bearing slogans that ranged from “Democracy now” to “Down with the Chinese Communist Party”.
A handful of protesters scuffled with police as they tried to break out of the designated parade route but no major trouble was reported on the march, as curious tourists from mainland China stared at a licensed expression of popular anger that is unimaginable back home.
Early Monday, China’s national anthem blared as the national and Hong Kong flags were raised outside the harborside Convention Centre to mark the city’s transfer from British to Chinese rule in 1997 — a historic event that also took place in a torrential downpour.
A small but rowdy protest took place near the ceremony with demonstrators burning a photograph of Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying, who critics say is guilty of kowtowing to Beijing and doing nothing to ease quality-of-life issues such as sky-high property prices.
On the march, one man carried a turtle made out of balloons to represent Leung, who stands accused of ‘retreating inside his shell whenever trouble strikes’. Protesters sang “Do You Hear the People Sing?” — the rabble-rousing anthem from the musical and film “Les Miserables”.
“The main goal of the rally is to push through for genuine democracy and to ask for Leung Chun-ying to step down,” Jackie Hung of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organises the annual march, told AFP.
The procession came after a survey published by the Hong Kong University found that only 33 percent of Hong Kongers took pride in being a Chinese national, the lowest level since 1998.
Leung was appointed by a pro-Beijing committee last July, promising to improve governance and uphold the rule of law in the bustling territory of seven million people.
He is charged with overseeing the transition to universal suffrage to appoint the city’s chief executive, which was promised by 2017, though critics say little or no progress has been made on the issue as the deadline draws nearer.
At the Convention Centre ceremony, Leung promised anew to address people’s grievances, which include a widening income gap fuelled by an influx of mainland Chinese wealth, but made no firm concession on direct elections for his job.
“With the greatest sincerity and commitment, the SAR (Special Administrative Region) government will launch a consultation at an appropriate juncture,” he said about the demands for universal suffrage.
Yeung Yuk, a 28-year-old social worker who was among those marching, said: “People don’t want ‘elections with Chinese characteristics’. The government should start consultations now so Hong Kong can have genuine democracy.”
The widespread belief that Beijing meddles in Hong Kong’s affairs, with the complicity of the local government, has grown stronger since the handover and now founds expression in ironic calls to return the city to British rule.
The sight of Hong Kong’s colonial-era flag at last year’s July 1 march incensed commentators on the mainland, but it was out in force again on Monday.
One group of protesters marched with the flag aloft and a large banner saying “Chinese colonialists get out!”
Police had no figure available for the size of the march but Hong Kong media estimated about 50,000.
The poor weather appeared to have dampened turnout from last year’s estimate of 400,000 protesters, although that was swelled by anger at the presence in town of China’s then president Hu Jintao for commemorations of 15 years since the handover.
Beijing said the ability of Hong Kongers to protest in force proved that the freedoms guaranteed under the handover agreement were alive and well.
“This year, with so many people going on the streets to protest, shows that under the ‘one country two systems’, Hong Kong has a lot of freedom and rights,” Zhang Xiaoming, who heads Beijing’s Liaison Office in the city, told reporters.