Tensions flared between Hong Kong protesters and police Monday evening as crowds gathered a year to the day after the start of huge pro-democracy rallies which brought parts of the city to a standstill.
All day crowds had numbered just a few hundred, a reflection of the movement’s loss of momentum after failing to push Beijing into allowing fully free leadership elections in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
But as 5:58 pm neared — the exact time a year ago when police fired tear gas at protesters — hundreds more poured in to the roads and walkways near government headquarters in the Admiralty financial district.
Instead of a planned moment of silence, protesters opened yellow umbrellas — symbol of the pro-democracy movement — while police warned them to back down, saying they would “use force” if they tried to occupy the nearby main road.
See also: HKFP’s live blog, which followed Monday’s protest as it unfolded.
Hundreds of angry demonstrators shouting “Open the roads!” faced off with tense police for more than an hour at the edge of the main road before the crowds dispersed voluntarily.
At the height of the 2014 protests, which lasted for 79 days, tens of thousands regularly gathered to demand political reform in a major challenge to China‘s communist rulers.
Yet despite the unprecedented rallies which garnered extensive coverage across the world, protesters were unable to force change.
Frustrated activists now say they must regroup and come up with new strategies, conceding that changing the minds of Beijing and the Hong Kong government is currently a hopeless task.
Protest leaders on Monday encouraged the crowd to fight on.
“The authorities will still be against us but that doesn’t mean we will give up,” said student leader Lester Shum.
Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai called 2014 “one of the most important years in Hong Kong history”.
“The Umbrella Movement… was just the beginning for Hongkongers in their quest for democracy,” he said.
Lack of progress
Some protesters expressed anger at the lack of progress.
“We have not achieved universal suffrage,” a woman in her 30s, who gave her name as Lam, told AFP.
“Society is not geared to helping Hongkongers.”
Others relaxed in the sun and browsed stalls of Umbrella Movement memorabilia.
One couple posed for pre-wedding photos, the bride-to-be in a strapless white wedding dress with a construction helmet — often worn during the rallies.
Dozens of pro-Beijing supporters also marched in central Hong Kong on Monday afternoon, shouting “Hong Kong people have had enough!” They accuse democracy activists of disrupting daily life.
Occupy Central was launched exactly a year ago, calling for fully free leadership elections, following more than a week of student protests.
Thousands joined the already large crowds after police fired tear gas in the afternoon of September 28 last year, a move that shocked the public and galvanised the Umbrella Movement — named after the umbrellas used to ward off sun, rain, tear gas and pepper spray.
The protests began after China‘s central government said it would allow a popular vote for Hong Kong’s leader in 2017. But it insisted candidates must be vetted, in what critics termed “fake democracy”.
The electoral package was voted down in June by pro-democracy lawmakers unhappy with the restrictions, leaving the territory with its existing system where the leader is chosen by a pro-Beijing election committee.
Amnesty International called Monday for Beijing to release eight mainland activists detained for supporting last year’s protests.
Human Rights Watch last week called for an “independent and thorough investigation” into the Hong Kong government’s handling of the Umbrella Movement.
A number of activists are facing court cases over the protests while police allegedly involved in beating a protester have yet to be prosecuted.