Annual July 1 pro-democracy march in Hong Kong draws record low turnout: police

Organiser blames aggression and rain for turnout of just 66,000, but police put figure at a 14-year low of 14,500

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 3:21pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 July, 2017, 2:35pm

The July 1 anti-government march on Saturday saw its size shrink by almost half to a two-year low of about 60,000, with organisers blaming the low turnout on perceived aggressive tactics by police towards protesters in recent years and heavy rain.

Police put the turnout at 14,500 – the lowest number since official records of the turnout began in 2003.

Researchers from the University of Hong Kong public opinion programme said about 27,000 to 35,000 people took part.

The Civil Human Rights Front, an umbrella group of some 50 pro-democracy organisations, conceded the turnout was low, but its convenor, Au Nok-hin, maintained it was still “a good show”.

Frustration for Hong Kong protesters trying to catch Xi’s eye

“In recent years, police have taken a more hostile attitude towards protesters and used pepper spray more often than in the past. We should actually praise those who turned up this year for their ­courage,” Au said.

He warned the new chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, not to take the people’s demands lightly despite the “seemingly low turnout”.

Watch: Raymond Yeung reports from the scene

The march started some two hours after President Xi Jinping left the city after concluding his three-day visit to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule.

It kicked off in high spirits as people braved the sweltering heat to protest against what they called Beijing’s encroachment on the city’s autonomy.

Loud chanting filled the air as politicians and protesters, old and young alike, poured out of Victoria Park into cordoned-off streets lined by police officers. They ended at the Tamar government headquarters complex about 21 /2 kilometres away.

But the weather turned bad later in the afternoon, forcing the organiser to drop a planned public rally outside the headquarters. Rain-soaked marchers dispersed quickly after arriving at the end point.

The front set the key theme for the march as “Reclaim Hong Kong, Democratic Self-determination”, saying Hong Kong people, not Beijing, should have the final say over local affairs.

Some protesters also called for universal suffrage and the release of Liu Xiaobo. The dissident, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work promoting political reform in China, was ­granted parole recently to be treated for late-stage liver cancer.

Leung Chun-ying, often a target of protesters in the past, did not escape on Saturday, his first day as a former chief executive. Banners called for a probe into the UGL controversy, in which Leung received HK$50 million from the Australian engineering firm. The then leader failed to declare it to his cabinet.

Protesters also took on other causes, including gay rights, education reform and social welfare.

Among those leading the march was Lam Wing-kee, one of the five at the centre of the missing bookseller saga that came to light in late 2015. Lam said the city’s autonomy had worsened since the handover.

Activists from a pro-British group, the Hong Kong-United Kingdom Reunification Campaign, ­accused Beijing of breaching the Sino-British Joint Declaration and urged London to take the city back.

Saturday’s march was noisy but largely peaceful. However, some protesters traded jeers and verbal abuse with pro-Beijing activists who were staging celebratory events along the route. Police quickly stepped in and separated them.

A spokesman for the Carrie Lam administration stressed that the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini- constitution, protected and upheld “core values such as freedom, human rights, democracy, rule of law and clean governance” and “clearly stated” the “fundamental rights and duties” of residents.

The government said it understood the people’s desire for universal suffrage but that given the “extremely controversial nature of the issue, we must prudently consider all related factors and seek consensus at a suitable juncture and in appropriate circumstances.

Au, meanwhile, criticised the government for ­refusing to allow it to use the soccer pitches in Victoria Park as the starting point for the march. It was forced to use the park’s central lawn because the pitches were booked by a pro-Beijing group to stage an exhibition on the country’s space achievements.