Thousands of black-clad protesters from all walks of life thronged the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday in a sign of broad support for anti-government demonstrations that have roiled the Chinese-ruled city for six months.
With chants of, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” anti-government activists, young and old, marched from Victoria Park in the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay to Chater Road near the heart of the financial district.
Authorities gave the green light to Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) – organiser of largely peaceful million-strong marches in June – to hold the rally, the first time the group has been granted permission for a protest since August 18.
“I will fight for freedom until I die because I am a Hong Konger,” said June, a 40-year-old mother dressed in black seated on the grass in Victoria Park. “Today is about standing with Hong Kong and the international community.”
Millions have taken to the streets over the past six months in protests that began after the government tried to push through a now-abandoned extradition bill. The movement has since evolved into a campaign for greater democracy fuelled by concerns that China is whittling away at the civil liberties promised when Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
“I must say I think that today there could be well over a million people at this protest,” said Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Hong Kong.
“It is a reminder of what this protest movement was when it began almost six months ago – it was powerful and peaceful and that’s what it is so far today,” he said.
The city has been relatively calm since pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory in local council elections two weeks ago, but activists say anger is building again after Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Beijing ruled out any concessions.
Organisers have billed Sunday’s event as a “last chance” for Lam to meet their demands which include an independent inquiry into the police’s handling of the protests, an amnesty for those arrested, and free elections.
Some 6,000 people have been arrested and hundreds injured, including police, since June.
The government said in a statement on Saturday it had “learned its lesson and will humbly listen to and accept criticism”.
Hong Kong’s protests are largely leaderless and organised online.
CHRF, which advocates non-violence, was the driving force behind the record-breaking rallies earlier in the summer that saw huge crowds despite the oppressive heat.
Authorities have repeatedly banned major rallies in recent months citing the risk of violence.
Large crowds have simply ignored the bans, sparking near-weekly tear gas and petrol bomb clashes that have upended Hong Kong’s reputation for stability and helped tip the city into recession.
Sunday afternoon’s march will follow a well-worn route across the main island from Victoria Park to the heart of the commercial district.
Online forums used to organise the movement’s more radical wing have promised to target the morning commute on Monday if Lam and her government do not respond.
Years of huge, peaceful democracy marches have made little headway, prompting some protesters to take more radical action.
But there is little sign Lam is willing to budge, leading to fears the lull in street clashes will be temporary.
Since the local elections, the city’s chief executive has remained steadfast in her opposition to further concessions and Beijing has stuck by her even as she languishes with record-low approval ratings.
The police force’s reputation has also been damaged.
A new poll released on Friday by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme, which has tracked public sentiment for years, showed record disapproval for the force with 40 percent of respondents now giving the force the lowest mark of zero.
The city’s new Police Chief Chris Tang has been in Beijing for the past two days, where he met senior party figures including public security chief Zhao Kezhi who gave his “strongest backing”, according to official reports.
Tang, who has continued his predecessor’s policy of rejecting calls for an independent inquiry, said his officers would clamp down on any violence at Sunday’s march.
“If there is arson, petrol bombs or damage to shops, we will take action,” he told reporters in Beijing.
“But for minor issues, we will handle in a flexible and humane manner.”