Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations Saturday were smaller and less disruptive than recent massive rallies that shut down much of the city.
The largest event on Saturday was a march that included thousands of protesters in the Mong Kok shopping district in Kowloon, across from the business and financial centers on Hong Kong Island.
Some black-clad protesters spray-painted government offices and subway stations with anti-Chinese messages. Others set up impromptu roadblocks. Some vandalized shuttered shops that protesters say have expressed support for Beijing.
Riot police nearby displayed a black flag to indicate they would fire tear gas but took no action during the afternoon long march. Some protesters passing by shouted obscenities at the police.
Most of the protesters were young and masked but the crowd also included a few parents with young children and babies. One father marching with his young daughter, both in masks, said he was not concerned for their safety at the demonstration but is more worried about the possible repressive control of Hong Kong by the “Chinese government in the future.”
Saturday’s turnout was less that last week’s demonstrations, when tens of thousands came out, and much less than the nearly 2 million people that participated in anti-government protests in June.
For over four months, Hong Kong has been in the midst of an uncompromising standoff between increasingly defiant pro-democracy protesters and equally determined government forces backed by Beijing.
While China regained sovereignty over this former British colony in 1997, Hong Kong has maintained a degree of political autonomy and civil liberties including free speech and a free press that is not tolerated on the mainland.
The protests erupted over a failed extradition bill to China but has since grown into calls for direct elections for all Hong Kong officials, instead of the current system under which Beijing appoints the chief executive and committees representing Hong Kong business interests select a number of seats in the legislature. The protesters are also demanding a release of jailed protesters, an inquiry into police abuse and even the disbandment of the police force.
Hong Kong police have used increasing force to quell the protests, employing water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets, and last week an officer shot a young protester with lethal ammunition during a scuffle with activists.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam also invoked partial emergency powers in outlawing the use of face masks that protesters have used to hide their identities and to protect themselves from tear gas attacks by police.
Since June, Hong Kong police over apprehended over 2,000 demonstrators, and nearly one-third of those arrested are under the age of 18.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip, head of the New People’s Party, credits the increased law enforcement measures with discouraging more people from risking arrest by participating in marches.
“Well in terms of the numbers of the so-called peaceful rational nonviolent protesters, those are the real peaceful demonstrators. The numbers are down a lot you know,” she said.
Fire and gasoline
It is not clear, however, if the lower turnout at Saturday’s march shows declining support for the democracy movement or is a temporary lull in activity. A march last Saturday attracted only about 1,000 protesters but support rebounded with a massive demonstration the next day.
Protesters who came out on Saturday said they would not be discouraged by the threat of arrest for participating in an illegal assembly or breaking the anti-masks law.
If “enough people break the law,” one masked woman protester said, “it won’t be illegal anymore.”
The activist group Citizen’s Press, in a statement, likened the Hong Kong emergency measures taken to suppress the protests “to extinguishing a fire with gasoline.”
Gasoline bombs were ignited at a subway station in Kowloon, likely by pro-democracy activists who have been increasingly engaging in vandalism and clashes with police. No one was injured in the incident, according to the Hong Kong government.
The subway system, which had been shut down during past protest marches, was operating Saturday but scheduled to close early at 10 p.m.
Some young protesters were seen at one point changing from the black clothing associated with the protester into more colorful attire and blending into a crowd of shoppers after being told police were approaching.
Also on Saturday a group of senior citizens calling themselves the “Silver-Haired Marchers” began a 48-hour quiet sit-in at police headquarters to show support for the predominately young protesters and “uphold the core values of Hong Kong and defend the future of our younger generations,” the group said in a statement.