July 1 march concludes, with turnout at lowest level since 2008
Protesters have arrived outside government headquarters in Admiralty as a poorly attended July 1 march for democracy reaches its end with the lowest turnout since 2008.
Organisers say just 48,000 people joined the march - the first since last year's Occupy sit-ins - with some blaming protest fatigue and the lack of an obvious goal after the government's political reform plan was rejected for the poor attendance. Police - who traditionally offer far lower figures for turnout than the organisers - said just 6,240 people started the march, with peak participation at 19,650, also the lowest level since 2008. Independent observers from the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme put the figure at 28,000.
"As long as we don't see democracy ... we won't succumb to challenges to continue to stand firm with fellow Hongkongers in the battle for democracy," said Daisy Chan Sin-ying, convenor of march organiser the Civil Human Rights Front.
The head of the march reached the end point at about 5.15pm, and participants are now joining a discussion forum on what society should do after the reform debate. The last of the marchers reached the end of the route not long after 7pm.
The annual march kicked off in Victoria Park, Causeway Bay, at about 3pm.
The Civil Human Rights Front, the organiser of the pro-democracy march, held a rally at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay at 2pm but crowds only filled about one and a half soccer pitches.
With 10 minutes to go till kick-off, the soccer fields near the Causeway Bay entrance to the park were either empty or only filled with a few people including the march organisers, dozens of Falun Gong practitioners and journalists. More people were filing in through the Tin Hau entrance of the park.
The crowd began filtering out of the park at about 3.25pm. By 4.30pm, police had reopened Causeway Road, the first part of the march route, to traffic.
Read more: Tired of protest and conflict, Hongkongers give July 1 pro-democracy march the cold shoulder
Under the scorching sun, many marchers held up yellow umbrellas, a symbol of last year’s Occupy movement.
Some activists forecast lower numbers than last year, when Hong Kong was gripped by an intense public debate over the method of electing its leader, the chief executive, in 2017.
The organisers put the turnout of last year’s rally at 510,000 people, while police said the number of marchers peaked at 98,600.
Watch: Why do Hongkongers still join July 1 march after Beijing-backed election plan was rejected
Why some marchers want to look like "Uncle Fat"
Pro-democracy groups always try to outdo each other with witty and sarcastic handouts for the participants on July 1. This year’s must have? Mask showing the faces of rural kingpin Lau Wong-fat, whose delay in getting to Legco was blamed by Beijing-loyalist lawmakers for their botched attempt to delay the vote on political reform last month, and his colleague Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung.
“We printed some 200 to 300 masks and handed them out to people. Masks with ‘Uncle Fat’ and Jeffrey Lam’s faces are really popular," said Ricky Chan, creative director of the internet freedom activist group Keyboard Frontline.
“Waiting for Uncle Fat” has entered the lexicon among Hongkongers and has inspired scores of creative online parodies.
Some plan rally at British consulate
While so-called “localism” and calls for Hong Kong autonomy have grown louder lately, one group on the sidelines of today’s march is going even further – with a most unlikely call for ‘reunification’ with former colonial master Great Britain.
The group, calling itself the HK-UK Reunification Campaign, is holding a rally at the British consulate in Admiralty tonight.
“Most Hongkongers are immigrants, illegal immigrants, from China who wanted to get the freedom and support of rule of law from British Hong Kong. It is a kind of self-determination,” organiser Alice Lai, 37, said. “Hong Kong has transferred to China without our consent.”
Protesting from his wheelchair since 1997
Retired civil servant Max Leung says he has attended every July 1 march since the 1997 handover – protesting from his wheelchair.
Now 60, Leung says people don’t seem as fired up as normal during today’s march.
“[But] seeing all these youngsters and Occupy Central, I’m optimistic for the future,” Leung says. “But the process towards democracy will be difficult.”
Leung said despite the smaller turnout and flagging enthusiasm from some he will be back next year “if I can”.
Ethnic minorities and refugees join the protest
Not all of the protesters taking part in the July 1 march are Chinese – members of the city’s ethnic minorities are also using the march to press for democracy, as well as issues of concern to their communities.
“We are here to advocate for [lessons in] Chinese as a second language for local ethnic minorities,” said Bashant Angbuhang, a local Nepali. Together wth a group of locally born and raised ethnic minoritiy people, they join the rest of Hong Kong to call for equality, and also for democracy as the two go hand in hand, he said. It is his first time joining the July 1 march.
With yellow ribbons on their chests, Njer Agnes and Charles Limbumba, a pair of African asylum seekers, were walking hand-in-hand.
Agnes comes from Kenya and Limbumba is from Tanzania. “We are here for refugees’ human rights fighting,” Agnes, 44, said. “We are not allowed to work as refugees here, but we have family to support.”
Limbumba added: “Though the Hong Kong government offers us food and small rooms for accommodation, we have to work after all.”
They said a few dozen refugees participated in the march.
Among the onlookers in Wan Chai was 40-year-old Zafar Imam, a refugee from India. He came to support his church's outreach efforts.
He said the march made him sad because the tension between mainland China and Hong Kong reminded him of the conflicts between religious groups in India that drove him out of his country.
“Hong Kong has Hong Kong brothers and Chinese brothers, both are the same,” Imam said. “If you block the streets, do you feel happy? Who will suffer? Hong Kong people.”
Protesters new and old make their points
While relatively few in number, the marchers included both veterans and people stepping out under the July 1 sunshine for the first time.
Ken Sheung, a 40-year-old IT worker and his Canadian wife joined the annual rally for the first time to seek “a better future for the next generation”. They did not join last year’s Occupy protests but preferred the march as a more peaceful approach to voicing their demands.
“I don't think our acts will bring about any significant changes. But we want to express our discontent regarding how Hong Kong is governed after the handover,” he said.
“Hong Kong is getting less and less competitive after 1997. In the past, it’s an international city. Today it’s being mainlandised and is dominated by property tycoons and retailers. I don’t want my kids to grow up here and end up becoming salesmen.”
By contrast Yuen Man-huen, 70, had joined the protest each year since the massive 2003 march, when half a million people took to the streets against national security legislation.
“Why not?”he said. “It’s where we express our opinions, discontent, and hope.”
“My hope is that Hong Kong can be equal. It should not be like mainland,” Huen said.
'No conflict' between politics and livelihood issues
The Society for Community Organisation is using the march to urge the government to improve livelihoods, while not forgetting issues of politics.
While the government has pledged to focus on economic and livelihood issues and put aside political reform, Soco saw no conflict between the three issues.
“I am disappointed, actually [politics] and [livelihood issues] are not contradictory. The building of public housing estates should not be dependent on the progress of political development,” said Ng Wai-tung, a community organiser for the non-governmental organisation.
He believes joining the rally is a way for the people, especially at grass-roots level, to express their opinions to the government.
Providing more public rental housing is also a key issue for Chan Bing-on, who joined the rally with Soco. The 62-year-old lives in a 54sq ft subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po.
"If there is more public housing, the rent for subdivided flats would not increase as much,” said Chan, who pays HK$1,800 per month for his tiny home.
While he applied for public housing in September, he said there were still some 5,000 people ahead of him in the queue.
More causes to promote in Wan Chai
As the marchers make their way towards government headquarters in Admiralty, they are passing street stalls in Wan Chai (more below) promoting a range of causes, not all of them directly linked to the democracy movement.
For example, Chiu Chi-wun was attempting to raise awareness of the case of Terry Lam, a blind footballer who died while playing in a match. “Terry was sent to the hospital two hours after suffering from symptoms of concussion,” he said. “We want justice and accountability for Terry.”
Daniel Tam was campaigning on the dangers of nuclear energy, especially on the mainland. “We should stop using nuclear energy immediately,” he said.
Also in Wan Chai was singer and gay-rights activist Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, 53, who linked the fight for equality to the stuggle for democracy.
“The cause can only be advanced in a truly democratic Legco,” he said. “Conservative and traditional thinking still dominates its members and society. There is no codified protection of lesbian/gay rights.”
A picture of turnout from a shop owner
One person in a good position to judge the size of the march is Fan Bill, who each year sets up a stall selling water to thirsty protesters outside his photo-developing shop in Irving Street, Causeway Bay. He says far fewer people have passed by this year.
“I guess it's because the political reform has already been rejected [in Legco], so there’s less reason for people to come out,” Fan says.
“My water-selling business is still pretty good though,” Fan chuckles as a girl buys a bottle of Coca-Cola from him
First marchers pass Beijing-loyalist protest
The head of the march reached Canal Road Flyover, where Beijing loyalists have set up a noisy and high-profile street booth (more below), at about 4.15pm. Police set up two layers of iron barricades to keep the pro-democracy protesters apart from members of the Defend Hong Kong Campaign.
Marchers booed the national anthem and told organiser Fu Chun-chung to “go home”
Police addressed the crowd through a loudspeaker and urged the protesters to keep marching on.
'Post-umbrella' professional groups take a stand
Amid the flags of the usual political and civil groups which march every year are banners from so-called “post-umbrella groups” – set up by people of various professions to unite pro-democracy people in their respective fields in the wake of Occupy.
About 15 architects joined the rally under the banner of Archivision. Member Kwan Siu-lun said: “We want to defend ‘one country, two systems’ and fight for genuine universal suffrage. ... We will urge people to register as voters and actively take part in upcoming elections.”
Kwan said he saw dialogue with Beijing as a necessary step towards constitutional reform. “After all, Hong Kong is a special administrative region. Communication with the central govenment is a must.”
The architect observed that there were much fewer participants in the park then in past year. “It has been expected as the atmosphere for the march is weaker this year. After the vote on the reform package, some people find the focus is lost... Some people may want to take a rest after months of protest too. But I think the turnout is not the most important.”
Danny Wong Yu-kwan, an educational psychologist with the group HK Psychologists Concern, had similar views. “I guess some people are rethinking whether marching is effective. A few of my friends said they did not see a clear theme of this year’s march and therefore didn't come.”
He dismissed Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s call for the city to focus on livelihood and social issues as a propaganda tactic, adding: “Pan-democrats also care about economic development and livelihood issues.”
“I believe there will certainly be opportunities to communicate with the central govenment. .. While negotation with the central government is necessary, Hong Kong must defend what it has in the negotiations - economic status and the rule of law,” Wong said.
“Joining a march is a very mild and peaceful way to express our views. If the authorities still don't listen, people may resort to more radical or even violent means.”
Beijing-loyalists protest along march route
About a dozen Beijing loyalists from the Defend Hong Kong Campaign are staging a street booth under the Canal Road Flyover in Wan Chai, along the route of th march.
The group played the national athem at high volume, and occasionally clashed with democracy supporters on their way to join the march, but they were kept away by more than 30 police officers who surrounded the group to maintain order.
Group leader Fu Chun-chung waved the national flag and shouted slogans demanding that pan-democratic lawmakers step down for voting against the government’s political reform plan.
“Vote them out of the legislature! Made them pay for vetoing the reform!” he shouted.
About 20 members of radical pan-democratic group Civic Passion rushed to the scene with yellow flags and challenges Fu’s group at about 3.45pm.
Police officers quickly seperated the two sides, which exchanged insults through loudspeakers.
Nearby, about 20 teenage supporters of Hong Kong autonomy shouted: “Mainlanders get out of Hong Kong.”
Democracy not the only reason to protest
Along the route of the march, various groups set up stalls to promote their own causes – not all of which were directly connected to the democracy movement. Alongside Hennessy Road in Wan Chai, groups handed out leaflets and displayed posters on everything from gay rights to keeping feral buffalo safe on Lantau Island.
One of the groups, calling itself No Flat Slaves, was campaigning against what is saw as the unfairness of the public housing allocation system. It said the system was unfair to young people, who might never get a place of their own. “We are not joining in the march but we are doing publicity with banners and leaflets here,” member Kenneth Tong Yiu-keung said.
Lau Miu-sing, a Kwu Tung North villager, was giving out leaflets against government plans for new towns that would “devour” the home his family has lived in for four generations. “We are firmly against the government since our lands are grabbed for profits of those tycoons. With little compensations, we are driven away, which is really unfair,” he said.
For some, a day of celebration, not protest
While pan-democrats marched in the sun, Beijing loyalists put on events to mark the anniversary of the handover – although as with the protest, turnout was not high.
In Mong Kok, a fleet of rare vehicles including classic cars, vintage Harley Davidson motorbikes and military vehicles were on display in Macpherson Playground before joining a parade to Tsim Sha Tsui at 2.45pm.
The event attracted high-level attendees including Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing and Qiu Hong, from Beijing’s liaison office. Beijing-loyalist lawmakers present included Starry Lee Wai-king, Ann Chiang Lai-wan, Paul Tse Wai-chun and Chan Yuen-Han.
Earlier, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and liaison office chief Zhang Xiaoming officiated at a flag-raising celebration outside the Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui.
The ceremony, conducted in Cantonese and Putonghua, featured lion dances and other performances.
The crowd, many of whom held miniature national and Hong Kong flags, took out their phones to capture the memorable moment as they witnessed both flags raised to the sound of the national anthem.
Jimmy Lai calls for 'continuous effort', Martin Lee has reservations on call to amend Basic Law
Asked about the seemingly low turnout, pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying said the fact the government’s reform package has been voted down should not put people off joining the protest.
“Some people said they would join the march when there is new development,” the Next Media founder said. “But actually it is our continuous effort that would prompt new development. We should never give up.”
Lai also hit out at rumours his populist newspaper Apple Daily would give up on print and go digital-only.
“Even if it happened, it would be in 10 or 20 years,” he said.
Martin Lee Chu-ming, founding chairman of the Democratic Party and a veteran of the pro-democracy movement, marched alongside Lai, but expressed reservations about one of the key demands in this year’s march: an amendment to the Basic Law.
Universal suffrage could be achieved without amending the mini-constitution, he said, adding there was also a risk the Beijing-loyalist camp would see an opportunity to revise the law to curb Hongkongers’ freedoms and rights.
However, he said the government should take the lead in reviewing the Basic Law, 18 years after its implementation.
What marchers hope to achieve
At Victoria Park, Lau Yin-chiu, 32, a musician taking part in the march, said: “I am here to protest against police’s abuse of protesters, and certainly also to fight for universal suffrage.”
He said Hongkongers should use a two-pronged approach in the fight for democracy. “Peaceful and mild protests should stay, especially for older people and the disabled to join. But more radical and creative struggles are also needed, even [if] there are clashes,” he said.
“The Basic Law should be amended. It only states that universal suffrage would come in a ‘gradual and orderly manner’, but doesn’t really define what universal suffrage is. I think it should specify that the nomination committee be popularly elected by the people," Lau said.
Since the failed effort to pass the reform package, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said Hong Kong should turn its attention to economic and livelihood issues - a call he reiterated this morning at a reception on the handover anniversary.
Lau said: “I don’t totally agree that we should only focus on livelihood issues after the vote on constitutional reform. After all, universal suffrage is for the benefit of the people. The government needs to address the root of society’s problems.”
Wyee Lee, 34, also a musician, said she hoped the annual march would reunite supporters of democracy. “For some time, people fighting for democracy have been split, some called ‘nativists’ and others called ‘leftist plastics’," she said, referring to those who argue that the fight for democracy should not only be for Hong Kong but also for China as a whole.
"I hope people can put aside these differences and fight for the common goal of universal suffrage," she said.
Lee Yi-lam, 22, who is unemployed, said that although she is unsure of how the city would move forward with its democratic aims: “I am here to fight for universal suffrage. I still hope there will be universal suffrage in 2017."
Meanwhile, a housewife in her 40s who only gave her name as Ms Chan said she came to march against bureaucratic excess. “There are a lot of white-elephant projects and I am here to protest against them. I also care about medical and retirement protections for Hong Kong people,” she said.
“The Occupy movement has been a wake-up call for many Hongkongers that they should act to fight for their rights. It has also helped gain international attention of our democracy movement," she said.
Ahead of the march, People Power lawmaker Albert Chan Wai-yip said this year’s turnout might be the lowest in recent years, given the recent failure of the electoral reform package, which culminated years of debates, consulations and protests. “People might inevitably need to take a break,” Chan said.
In a historic vote, pan-democrat lawmakers on June 18 rejected the Beijing-backed reform package, which would have seen the city elect its leader by one man, one vote for the first time – but only, argued opponents, from a crop of candidates favoured by Beijing.
Johnson Yeung Ching-yin, the front’s deputy convenor, however, says the turnout is not the only thing that matters.
He noted that the number of booths to be set up along the marching route today was the highest in recent years, thanks to the presence of groups established in the wake of the Occupy protests last year. The booths are open to various political groups and are used as a platform to send a message to the public, collect donations or feature merchandise.
“The protesters’ interactions with these groups along the march – would help civil society find its way forward,” Yeung said.
Fu Chun-chung, leader of the Beijing-friendly Defend Hong Kong Campaign, said his group would set up a street booth in Wan Chai to condemn the pan-democrats for voting down the reform plan.
Reporting team: Jeffie Lam, Tony Cheung, Gary Cheung, Fanny WY Fung, Emily Tsang, Stuart Lau, Jennifer Ngo, Elizabeth Cheung, Gloria Chan, Ben Westcott, Jessie Lau, Sidney Leng, Celine Ge, Naomi Ng, Allen Au-yeung, Frank Feng, Wesley Chan, Joshua Lok and Ellis Liang