Thousands of Hongkongers took to the streets on Wednesday for the first police-approved mass protest of the new year.
Update: A million attend pro-democracy demo, say organisers, as Hong Kong police halt protest early amid vandalism, tear gas
The huge turnout built on a continuing a pro-democracy movement that has reached each corner of the city over the past seven months.
The march received a letter of no objection from the police, and began at around 2:40pm in Victoria Park in Causeway Bay.
The front of the march reached the endpoint at the Chater Road Pedestrian Precinct in Central just after 4pm.
In addition to the five core demands of the movement, protesters on Wednesday also called for increased union participation, supporting the victims of political reprisals, and halting a proposed pay rise for the police.
Protesters chanted slogans such as “Five demands, not one less,” as well as new additions such as “Resist tyranny, join a union.”
Those at the head of the march included some newly-elected pro-democracy district councillors – whose term in office began on January 1.
A group outside Victoria Park were rallying Hongkongers to register to vote: “We want to use our vote to tell the Hong Kong government what we want… We want the people to come out again and win at the Legislative Council election [in September],” Ms Oliver told HKFP, following the pro-democracy camp’s victory at last year District Council elections.
Though the extradition bill – which sparked the movement – was axed, demonstrators are still demanding an independent probe into police behaviour, amnesty for those arrested, universal suffrage and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.”
In a statement, march organisers the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) called on the public to be “more united, persistent, and caring of one another” in the coming year.
“In 2020, the police have already fired the first round of tear gas,” the group wrote shortly after midnight. “Carrie Lam and police brutality turned a festive season into anguish, and perhaps we should say ‘Five demands, not one less’ instead of happy new year.”
In a statement later on Wednesday, the Front said the police had taken no responsibility for any misconduct: “They dehumanise protestors as cockroaches, demean journalists as “black reporters” and arrest medical doctors and nurses as rioters. Now, the government even attempts to increase the salaries of these rioting police.”
“We must persist this fight, for the arrested, injured and departed brothers and sisters in this movement. When victory comes, we shall gather at the dawn,” they added.
During the march, Ms Ho of the Construction Site Workers General Union said they had over 10,000 signed-up members and around 100 active members: “It is a union that already exists, but now we are recruiting more workers with the same political stance,” she said.
“We aim for three targets. The first one, we want to defend our own worker’s rights… We want to get the right to vote in the coming legislative election [as a functional constituency]… The third aim – we are trying to use construction workers’ role in this movement – for example, volunteer teams for people in need – trying to prepare for the general strike.”
One protester surnamed Kam told HKFP that he recently joined a union in the restaurant industry, where he works as a waiter: “I think it can help concentrate people’s energy and resources to make this movement go forward,” he said, though he said the union has yet to propose any collective action.
Mr Kam also said that he was willing to consider going on strike, but he was unsure how effective it would be: “I’m glad my boss is ‘yellow,’ but not everyone is so lucky,” he said. “There may be consequences or even political reprisals.”
Another protester who called herself as Ada told HKFP that she supported independence: “People should not be afraid of voicing support of independence in this movement,” she said. “Compared to most people, we have fewer illusions about China.” At the start of the march, a group of pro-independence advocates waved flags on Hennessy Road and shouted slogans such as “Hong Kong independence, the only way out.”
New Year unrest
Earlier on Wednesday, police fired tear gas and water cannon a few minutes after entering the new year, which the force said was in response to petrol bombs thrown by protesters in Mong Kok.
Protesters also threw petrol bombs near a Light Rail station in Tuen Mun, and at a car park next to Tsuen Wan Police station, which led to three cars being burnt, police said.
The last CHRF march was held on December 8 and followed the same route. The march ended with black-clad protesters setting barricades in Central and a tense standoff with police, but no tear gas was fired.
“Five demands, not one less,” chant dozens of Pepe frog characters in #hongkong‘s Victoria Park. #China #antiELABhk #pepe pic.twitter.com/QV6T3GS3HU
— Hong Kong Free Press (@HongKongFP) January 1, 2020
Police on Wednesday kept a low profile as the march began in Causeway Bay, instead reserving the bulk of their manpower in Wan Chai.
The MTR closed Tin Hau Station, and several stores – in particular, those targetted by protesters as being pro-government – remained shut.
Officers in riot gear subdued and detained at least two people outside Southorn Playground in Wan Chai. Those detained were reportedly volunteers at a protest street booth, though it is unclear whether they were arrested.
On the day before the march, police said that they found over 50 glass bottles and six containers of gasoline near a hiking trail in Wong Tai Sin, which they said were suspected ingredients for petrol bombs.
Chief Inspector Wong Yi-wai said that police suspected that the bombs were intended to be used during public events on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. However, Wong did not specify how the conclusion was reached.
Newly-formed unions and newly-elected pro-democracy District Councillors are joining today’s @chrf_hk march. #hongkong #hongkongprotests #china pic.twitter.com/1gghfe8QyA
— Hong Kong Free Press (@HongKongFP) January 1, 2020
Open letter to Lam
On Tuesday, 40 parliamentarians and dignitaries from 18 countries wrote an open letter to Chief Executive Carrie Lam to express “grave concerns at the recent escalation of police brutality over the Christmas period.”
“We have been horrified to see reports of police firing teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets at close-range at shoppers, peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and again on Saturday 28 December,” the letter read.
“It is essential that the Hong Kong Police Force is instructed to exercise restraint, to respect peaceful protest, and to use only proportionate measures when dealing with any violent conduct.”
The authors said that, if Lam continued to reject setting up an independent commission of inquiry, then they will call on the international community to establish an “international, independent inquiry mechanism.”
Signatories of the letter include Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, daughter of former Indonesian president Alissa Wahid, former speaker of the UK House of Commons John Bercow, and former British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind.
The letter also urged Lam to set up an independent inquiry into police behaviour, release “unjustly detained” protesters, and consider restarting political reforms in light of the District Council election results in November.
The signatories warned that Lam’s failure to address protesters’ demands will result in “further human suffering, fear, violence and instability and the tragic decline” of Hong Kong, and may spark more vocal calls for targeted Magnitsky sanctions against government officials.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Hong Kong government issued a lengthy response, calling the claims in the open letter “unfounded and misguided.”
“We are gravely concerned that the claims in their letter are biased and misleading. The HKSAR Government must rebut them to ensure they truly understand the extent of violence by radical protesters and the attacks they have made on the police and citizens,” a government spokesman said.
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