Written by Mike Ives, Andrew Jacobs and Tiffany May
Anti-government protesters in Hong Kong rallied in a downtown park, occupied a major road and blanketed several neighborhoods with pro-democracy artwork on Saturday, days before a sensitive national holiday that will commemorate 70 years of Communist rule in China.
The civil disobedience celebrated the fifth anniversary of the start of the Umbrella Movement, a pro-democracy campaign that many see as a precursor to the demonstrations that have roiled Hong Kong this summer. And it came during a weekend of protests before National Day, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China under the Communist Party.
China’s central government does not want anything to mar the Oct. 1 holiday, but the Hong Kong protesters see it as a chance to broadcast their displeasure with Beijing’s influence over life and politics in their semiautonomous Chinese city.
“We see China’s authoritarian regime continuously encroaching on Hong Kong’s freedoms,” Emily Fung, a 27-year-old engineer, said before the rally started in a downtown harbor front park ringed by glowing skyscrapers. “I came out today to show the regime and people with similar views that there is still a group of us who are opposed to what it stands for.”
The police-approved rally in Tamar Park on Saturday night drew tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators, even as other protesters sprayed graffiti and threw bricks into a complex of government offices near the park. The police force later used water cannons, tear gas and pepper spray against protesters on the front lines, and said in a statement that some of them had thrown firebombs.
“Free Hong Kong, democracy now!” protesters chanted in the park against a backdrop of colorfully lit office towers. Some aimed green and blue laser pointers at the government offices and a helicopter hovering overhead.
The rally commemorated the start of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014, a 79-day sit-in that was designed to press Beijing for greater democracy in Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese control in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that guaranteed it a high degree of autonomy.
The Umbrella Movement was frayed by infighting over protest tactics and by legal injunctions that whittled away at demonstrators’ street encampments. But so far, the current protest movement has largely overcome differences of opinion within its ranks about whether violent tactics — throwing bricks and gasoline bombs at police officers, for example — are a constructive way of promoting its demands.
Some at the rally on Saturday suggested that this movement has essentially picked up where the earlier one left off, but with more effective organizing principles.
“Five years ago, there was a main stage leading the movement,” the Rev. Chu Yiu-ming, a leader of the 2014 demonstrations, told the crowd in Tamar Park, referring to a group of leading Hong Kong activists. “This time, everyone is their own leader.”
Protesters this year have spent more than three months pressing the Hong Kong government for police accountability and a range of political reforms, including universal suffrage. Their movement initially formed in opposition to contentious legislation that would have allowed extraditions to the Chinese mainland, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party.
On Saturday, the local government said in a statement that universal suffrage was still “an ultimate aim” of the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that has governed Hong Kong since 1997. “To achieve this aim, the community needs to engage in dialogues, premised on the legal basis and under a peaceful atmosphere with mutual trust, with a view to narrowing differences and attaining a consensus agreeable to all sides,” it said.
The Hong Kong government “will assess the situation carefully and take forward constitutional development” in accordance with both the Basic Law and the standing committee of China’s legislature, the statement added.
China has said its “one country, two systems” arrangement with Hong Kong would remain in place until at least 2047.
Ahead of Saturday’s rally, hundreds of protesters spent hours taping posters and fliers to buildings, sidewalks, roads and footbridges in nearby neighborhoods, turning the area into a giant pro-democracy art installation.
Many of the posters mocked President Xi Jinping of China, with some depicting him as the cartoon character Winnie the Pooh, a meme that the Communist Party’s censors have deemed subversive on the Chinese mainland.
Alexis Wong, a 15-year-old protester who was taping down one of the Winnie the Pooh posters, said it was an important act of rebellion against a leader who directly threatened Hong Kong’s vaunted freedoms.
“We want people to see these, especially those from mainland China,” she said. “If they put these on the street back home, they would end up in jail.”
At one point, a young man from mainland China with a roller suitcase played the Chinese national anthem on his phone and scowled as he took in the fliers. He kicked at some of them, tearing one slightly, but stopped after he was yelled at by passersby.
Later in the evening, a skirmish ensued at Tamar Park after a man raised a Chinese flag near the rally’s main stage. He was quickly subdued and ushered out, as people jeered at him and the crowd roared, “Free China, free Hong Kong.”