'We have no other choice': Protesters in Hong Kong rally peacefully against government
Large turnout amid downpour suggests there's continued support for movement
Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters rallied peacefully in Hong Kong on Sunday, filling major thoroughfares in heavy rain in the 11th week of sometimes violent demonstrations in the Asian financial hub.
Sunday's turnout suggested the movement still has broad-based support despite the ugly scenes witnessed during the past week when protesters occupied the city's airport, for which some activists apologized.
There was an uneasy calm after nightfall, with no violent confrontations and protesters unclear on what would happen next. Police in riot gear checked the IDs of some demonstrators to the west of the Central business district, and there was a large police presence outside the Western District police station.
"They've been telling everyone we're rioters. The march today is to show everyone we are not," said a 23-year-old named Chris, who works in marketing and was dressed all in black, including a scarf covering his face and baseball cap.
"It does not mean we won't keep fighting. We will do whatever is necessary to win, but today we take a break, then we reassess."
One protester shouted at others who were jeering at police, "Today is a peaceful march. Don't fall into the trap. The world is watching us," prompting the group to move on.
Organizers said at least 1.7 million people turned out for the rally. Civil Human Rights Front organizer Jimmy Shan said the figure does not include those who were not able to make it to Victoria Park — where Sunday's protest march began — due to traffic constraints.
The total turnout would make the rally larger than a massive march in June, when organizers estimated two million attended. Police have not yet released their crowd estimates, which are generally much lower.
The organizing group said the protest was entirely peaceful.
Anger over a now-suspended bill that would allow people detained in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China erupted in June, but the rising unrest has been fuelled by broader worries about the erosion of freedoms guaranteed under the "one-country, two-systems" formula put in place after Hong Kong's return from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
From Victoria Park to financial centre
Protesters in Victoria Park held aloft placards with slogans including "Free Hong Kong!" and "Democracy now!," and umbrellas to shield them from the rain. The crowd was peaceful and included the elderly, the middle aged, young people and families, with some parents carrying toddlers.
Despite rally organizers not having permission to march, the park could not accommodate the crowd and many headed west towards the city's financial centre, chanting for the city's Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, to step down.
"It's bloody hot and it's raining. It's a torture just to turn up, frankly. But we have to be here because we have no other choice," said a 24-year-old student named Jonathan who was at the rally in Victoria Park in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong island.
Trying to navigate through a sea of umbrellas in <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/HongKong?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#HongKong</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/victoriapark?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#victoriapark</a> <a href="https://t.co/kHsKNMQJiE">pic.twitter.com/kHsKNMQJiE</a>—@CBCChrisBrown
"We have to continue until the government finally shows us the respect that we deserve."
The crowd at the Central subway station, one of the city's busiest, was at a near-standstill on Sunday afternoon as a sea of people dressed in black T-shirts waited to board trains. The group erupted in cheers and chanted "Revolution of our time" in Cantonese when an empty train finally arrived.
Aside from Lam's resignation, demonstrators are seeking complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, a halt to descriptions of the protests as "rioting," a waiver of charges against those arrested, an independent inquiry and resumption of political reform.
"When we were young, we didn't think about it. But my son tells me: After 2047, what will happen to me?" said a history teacher named Mrs. Poon, referring to the year when the 50-year agreement enshrining Hong Kong's separate system will lapse.
"I will come again and again and again. We do not know how any of this is going to end. We will still fight."
Protesters 'here for the future'
Police have come under criticism for using increasingly aggressive tactics to break up demonstrations, and on Sunday some people handed out balloons resembling eyeballs, a reference to the injury suffered by a female medic who was hospitalized after being hit by a pellet round in the eye.
On Saturday, however, a demonstration in support of the government attracted what organizers said was 476,000 people, although police put the number of attendees at 108,000.
Watch footage from Saturday's demonstration:
The anti-government protests present one of the biggest challenges facing Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. And with the ruling Communist Party preparing to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic on Oct 1, the crisis in Hong Kong has come at a sensitive time.
Beijing has struck an increasingly strident tone over the protests, accusing foreign countries including the United States of fomenting unrest.
Scenes of Chinese paramilitary troops training at a stadium in the city of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, gave a clear warning that mainland intervention by force is possible.
Last week, protesters who occupied the terminal at Hong Kong's airport forced the cancellation of nearly 1,000 flights and detained two men they thought were pro-government sympathizers, prompting Beijing to liken the behaviour to terrorism.
"We are Hong Kongers. We are here for our future. We feel for the teenagers," said Frances Chan, 60, a retired journalist attending Sunday's rally.
She said only a few protesters had used violence, sparingly, and that it was brought on by pressure from authorities and police.
"Actually, we want peace and freedom," she said. "If the government would just listen to the five requests, things would calm down."
With files from The Associated Press