Thousands march in Hong Kong to express discontent with city’s governance
Reduced turnout seen at annual July 1 pro-democracy rally, while many defy police order to not join procession midway
Thousands of Hongkongers took to the streets under the scorching sun on Sunday to express their discontent over democratic stagnation as the city marked the 21st anniversary of its handover to China.
The Civil Human Rights Front, the organiser of the annual July 1 pro-democracy march, claimed more than 50,000 had joined – less than last year’s 60,000 and hitting a three-year low – while the police put the turnout at 9,800, down from last year’s estimate of 14,500 and its lowest level since 2003.
Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai of the University of Hong Kong, who sent a team of researchers to do the headcount, put the figure at about 14,170, with about 45 per cent of people joining midway. His team estimated 16,000 last year.
“No matter the turnout, we are satisfied … there is value in continuing [the march],” the Front’s convenor Sammy Ip Chi-hin said after the rally.
He added it was difficult to give an exact turnout this year as a lot of people had joined midway, after the police forbade the organisers from using the soccer pitches of Victoria Park as their starting point and despite marchers being warned by police that they might face legal consequences if they joined the procession after it started.
Many chanted the theme of this year’s march – “End one-party dictatorship, reject the fall of Hong Kong” – as they went from Causeway Bay to government headquarters in Admiralty.
The symbolic annual procession came just two days after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor unveiled a basket of measures to ease the city’s housing crisis – including a vacancy tax targeted at flat-hoarding developers and providing cheaper subsidised flats. But her announcement apparently failed to reduce tensions.
“The vacancy tax does not target vacant flats in the secondary market,” Denise Chow, a 26-year-old sustainability specialist, said. “That means a large problem is left unresolved,”.
Chow noted the recently approved joint-checkpoint proposal for the city’s cross-border rail link – which would see mainland laws enforced in part of the West Kowloon terminus – had also prompted her to join the march.
Although the turnout of the march has dropped since the Occupy movement of 2014, a wide range of protesters, young and old, and even mainlanders, were spotted.
Secondary two pupil Isaac Yiu, 14, expressed worries over reduced freedoms in Hong Kong.
“If we are not coming out now, maybe when I grow up, I might not have the chance to have a similar march again,” he said.
Sit Chun-hang, 18, a social work student from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who joined the march with his classmates, said: “Since Hong Kong was returned to China 21 years ago, democracy, freedom, and social policies have been deteriorating. I wish to voice out our opinions and demands.”
Three young mainlanders from Guangdong province had their first taste of the march to learn about the “real Hong Kong” and support the pro-democracy drive.
“We can’t achieve democracy in China. We hope you Hongkongers can achieve that,” one of them who gave her name as Miss Wan said. “There are definitely hopes ahead and that is why we are here to get a sense of freedom.”
In response to the march, a government spokesman said the administration had introduced measures to address people’s aspirations and had been implementing the “one country, two systems” principle.
“Chanting slogans which disrespect ‘one country’ and disregard the constitutional order, or which are sensational and misleading is not in line with Hong Kong’s overall interests,” he added.
Dr Chan Kin-man, one of the core leaders of the Occupy movement, said he was angered by the police force’s arrangement.
“I used to lead a group of mainlanders to observe the July 1 march in the past to show them how the Hong Kong police have assisted the procession instead of suppressing it like how it happened in China, but now they are using such tactics to scare off people and stripping us of our basic rights,” Chan, a sociologist, said.
Some, however, decided to avoid the march this year.
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Hilary Leung, who used to work for a legislator, said she felt a sense of powerlessness in the political field.
“No matter what the pro-democratic legislators tried to do in the Legislative Council, the final decision is up to the central government,” she said.
Political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung, of Chinese University, attributed the low march turnout to a number of factors, including the frustration left behind from the Occupy movement and the honeymoon period Lam was still enjoying.
“Lam and [former chief executive] Donald Tsang Yam-kuen both benefit from what was called the ‘predecessor effect’, where citizens tend to slack off after they get rid of the highly unpopular predecessors of the incumbent leader,” he said, referring to Tung Chee-hwa, the city’s first leader, and Leung Chun-ying, who did not seek a second term last year.
In 2006, the first year of Tsang’s administration, the Front estimated 58,000 had attended the march.
Lam had not really handled many thorny issues during her term, Choy suggested.
“Her only challenge was livelihood issues and she has managed to roll out a set of new housing measures ahead of July 1,” he added. “It makes it more difficult to mobilise citizens to join the march. But her popularity would be hit sooner or later if she fails to cool down the soaring property market.”
Reporting by Jeffie Lam, Kimmy Chung, Sum Lok-kei, Su Xinqi, Alvin Lum, Ng Kang-chung, Phila Siu, Mandy Zheng, Linda Lew, Simone McCarthy, Zoe Low, Martin Choi, Jane Zhang, Michelle Wong, Veta Chan, Zoe Law and Evanna Gurung