Hong Kong democracy movement back on road, but turnout down
But low turnout for march taken as a sign some want more radical action
Turnout for the first major pro-democracy march of the post-Occupy era fell well short of expectations yesterday - but organisers rejected suggestions people were growing less determined about the fight for democracy.
Rather it was a sign Hongkongers no longer had faith in "conventional ways" of protesting, Civil Human Rights Front convenor Daisy Chan Sin-ying said. She said more "alternative" forms of civil disobedience could emerge unless the government heeded public opinion on "genuine democracy".
Watch: Arrested once but undeterred, why this Hong Kong man continues to protest
The front put turnout for the march from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to Central at 13,000. Independent academics put the turnout at 11,000 to 12,000, while police said 6,600 left the park, with a peak turnout of 8,800. Chan had expected 50,000 people to show up. About 30,000 turned out for the New Year's Day march last year, the front said.
The march was pushed back to coincide with a consultation on reform, which pan-democrats are boycotting as the government refuses to budge from Beijing's limits on nominations for the 2017 chief executive election.
"This [turnout] only shows that Hongkongers are no longer satisfied with conventional ways of protest," Chan said. "If people are tired of marches, it's not the front which is in trouble but the government."
Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung also said the turnout could be a sign the protest was "too moderate" for supporters fired up by the 79-day Occupy street blockades.
"They may also need more time to rest [after Occupy] … or do not feel the urgency to take to the streets again," Choy said.
Occupy co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting agreed supporters might need some "rest" after the street protests, but said "it doesn't mean they are no longer fighting for democracy".
Tai led the march with his two co-founders Dr Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, veteran Democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming and Daisy Chan. As the crowd waved yellow umbrellas and other Occupy symbols, the five held a banner which read: "Reject fake democracy; we want real universal suffrage."
About 2,000 police lined the route and stopped at least three groups from setting up stalls.
Mother-of-one Carol Leung, 34, said she marched because "I am afraid that Hong Kong will become like [mainland] China".
Gabriel Lam, 14, carried a Hong Kong/North Korea flag he had designed. "Hong Kong is becoming more and more like North Korea, because the democracy that officials talk about seems fake," he said, adding the hermit state gave people votes but no choice of candidates.
Some Occupy veterans said they chose not to march as they doubted its effectiveness. In response, a government spokesman urged citizens "to adopt an accommodating, rational and pragmatic approach" to forge consensus on political reform.
In Tai Po, meanwhile, there were clashes between democracy supporters and a group staging a pro-police protest. Police threatened to use pepper spray and issued warning notices telling the crowd to disperse. A 13-year-old boy and two men, aged 22 and 39, were arrested.
Sense of futility on sidelines of rally
Financial researcher Eric Fok had his hands in his pockets as he stood outside the Hong Kong Central Library, watching the thousands of protesters streaming onto Causeway Road from Victoria Park.
"I support them at heart. I support the umbrella movement," said Fok, who is in his 40s.
"But I am busy today, and the government won't listen to you no matter what you do."
Fok was one of the many Hongkongers standing on the sidelines of yesterday's rally who support the democracy cause but did not take part, partly because they doubt the government would ever listen.
Others said that as the Occupy movement, which shook Hong Kong for 79 days, had failed to force the government to offer genuine universal suffrage, rallies like the one yesterday would hardly do so.
The Facebook page of the rally organiser, the Civil Human Rights Front, was flooded with comments saying protests would not work. Others wrote that they were disappointed the front did not organise a rally on New Year's Day, like it had been doing for years.
Those who took part in the rally yesterday had a more optimistic view.
"It is a continuation of the Occupy spirit. We want to choose our own chief executive. We do not want to choose from several rotten oranges," said 67-year-old Ng Yin-fai.
"Uncle Wong", a 91-year-old retired farmer who was always seen at the Occupy protest site, was also at the rally.
"I will keep coming to fight for democracy. As long as I can walk I will be here," said Wong, who was considered a symbol of the Occupy movement.
Retailers remain divided about whether such protests can ever be an effective force for change.
"Many people have become antagonistic towards protests," said Alan Yu King-bun, a manager at Ko Lai Tong, a Korean snack shop on Yee Wo Street.
For more than six years, Jason Pang, the owner of luggage store the P&L Company on nearby Causeway Road, has put up with large rallies passing by his store.
"They have an objective, so even if it did affect our business a bit, we still accept it," Pang said. He added that many people were frustrated with the government, including small-business owners like himself.
"The government must look out for all strata of society, not just their rich friends," Pan said.