Participants in the annual July 1 democracy march expressed fears over dwindling freedoms and Chinese encroachment in the city, 21 years after the 1997 Handover of the British colony to China.
The rally on Sunday – organised by the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) – saw thousands march from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to the Central Government Offices to push for greater democracy in the region. Organisers put the turnout at 50,000, whilst police put the figure at 9,800 – the lowest on record.
Lawmaker Tanya Chan reiterated the aim of the rally for her political party. “For the Civic Party, we hope to safeguard the independence of judicial power and it’s very important to safeguard this pillar of Hong Kong. At the same time, we hope to fight for democracy and universal suffrage,” she told HKFP.
Avery Ng, chairman of the League of Social Democrats, said he was most concerned about the gradual deterioration of political norms in Hong Kong. Reviewing Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s first year in office, Ng also said she “failed to fulfill her campaign promises.”
“In the past year the Carrie Lam government hastened their efforts in breaking Hong Kong’s system down,” Ng said. “I would say that she has failed as a chief executive.”
People Power lawmaker Ray Chan expressed similar concerns, referring to Lam’s speech earlier that morning when she said the government had “no tolerance” for acts that hit the country’s bottom line.
“The chief executive, Carrie Lam, said this morning that the most important thing is the one country’s interest. But the core values of Hong Kong people are freedom, democracy… as the chief executive, she should protect our rights and sacrifice for our interests,” Chan said.
Hong Kong University student Elvin Tse told HKFP that he believed rights in Hong Kong are being eroded. “Hong Kong is actually stepping backwards in terms of freedom, and that’s why I want to step up and express my views,” he said.
“We still have our responsibility and ability to do it, because one day we might lose it. Nowadays we still have our will and responsibility to do it, or else we will lose everything.”
Tse also added that he saw a heavy police presence around Hong Kong independence activists on Queensway. “That is a sign of the government… they won’t stop us from attending this protest, but they don’t want people expressing their views, especially the topics of Hong Kong independence,” he said.
When asked how he feels about the future of Hong Kong, Tse said: “Very dim, actually I feel hopeless.”
Singer and LGBTQ activist Denise Ho also expressed similar views about social progress.
“Unfortunately I think we are going a bit backwards. Just recently we know there are some people demanding some LGBT books to be off the shelves in libraries, and all sorts of things you wouldn’t think would happen in 2018 but it is.”
Wing Chan – a banker – told HKFP: “A lot of young people are going to jail, we’re talking six years, and this is something we never imagined in the past.”
Referring to the recent jailing of localist Edward Leung to six years behind bars for his role in the 2016 Mong Kok unrest, she added: “After six years he’s in his thirties, so his golden age is almost gone.”
Former lawmaker Baggio Leung was similarly concerned about the activists in prison, saying that he believed Hong Kong people will continue to come out and show support for the democracy movement.
“I’m here for those who sacrifice themselves, sacrifice their freedoms for Hong Kong democracy,” Leung said.
At the march Leung spoke at the booth of Spark Alliance, a group providing legal support to activists behind bars. Leung was sentenced to four weeks in jail in June, and is currently on bail pending an appeal.
Mr and Mrs Yeung attend the march every year. However, they said their two main concerns this year are “devious” Chief Executive Carrie Lam, whom they call a “puppet” of Beijing, and the MTR scandal at Hong Hum station, where steel bars were cut to compensate for mistakes in construction. They said they thought the corner-cutting methods were a symptom of “mainlandisation”.
Some student groups boycotted Sunday’s march over its message of solitary with mainland democratic movements. But Human Rights in China (HRIC) Executive Director Sharon Hom told HKFP that activists in Hong Kong can disagree, but must work together as one movement.
“Whether you believe the strategy response should be solidarity or not, your strategic analysis can’t be an isolated Hong Kong picture, because it’s interrelated… Beijing does not isolate its strategies,” she told HKFP.
Mr and Mrs Lau are parents of two and have attended the march many times; however, their main concern this year was “Chinese encroachment” into Hong Kong. The couple said they thought there were fewer participants and the atmosphere was more subdued compared to last year.
Despite warnings from Commissioner of Police Stephen Lo earlier in June that participants of the march could potentially be arrested if they do not comply with police instructions, the family joined the march midway through, instead of at the designated starting point. They said they did not see police stop participants from joining.
While organisers continued to invite protesters to join midway, CHRF Convener Sammy Ip Chi-hin urged citizens on Thursday against “unnecessary arguments and clashing with police.”
This years’ rally was marked by disputes between the CHRF and police. Organisers had their application to use the football pitches at Victoria Park rejected for the second year in a row; the space was given instead to a pro-Beijing charity – the Hong Kong Celebrations Association.
A human rights organisation – the Civil Rights Observer group – deployed 15 observers to monitor police officers for abuses of power.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu told HKFP: “Hong Kong people are used to police being used as a political tool of the government. But we will not back down. The demand is always democracy, democracy now.”
In response to the march on Sunday, a government spokesperson said: “Since the return to the Motherland, Hong Kong has continued to enjoy prosperity and stability.”
“Under the arrangement of ‘one country, two systems’, we have to firmly uphold the ‘one country’ principle, have a correct understanding of the constitutional order as set out by the Constitution and the Basic Law, and safeguard the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests.”
Additional reporting: Holmes Chan