Saturday 7 December, 2019

Tens of thousands march in latest Hong Kong protest

Heavy rain fell on tens of thousands of umbrella-toting protesters Sunday as they marched from a packed park and filled a major road in Hong Kong, where mass pro-democracy demonstrations have become a regular weekend activity this summer.

Organizers said they hoped the assembly would be peaceful, which would make for a rare calm weekend in a months-long movement that has been marked by violent clashes with police. Law enforcement officers were keeping a low profile on Sunday, with no riot police seen from the procession's main routes.

"We hope that there will not be any chaotic situations today," said organizer Bonnie Leung. "We hope we can show the world that Hong Kong people can be totally peaceful."

Leung's group, the Civil Human Rights Front, has organized three massive marches in Hong Kong since June. The protest movement, however, has been increasingly marked by clashes with police as demonstrators vent their frustrations over what they perceive to be the government's blatant refusal to respond to their demands.

"Peace is the No. 1 priority today," said Kiki Ma, a 28-year-old accountant participating in the march. "We want to show that we aren't like the government."

While police had granted approval for the rally, they didn't approve an accompanying march. Demonstrators nevertheless fanned out and filled the streets, as there was not enough space at the designated assembly area.

Public transit trains did not stop at stations near the assembly because of overcrowding.

In Beijing, You Wenze, a spokesman for China's ceremonial legislature, condemned statements from U.S. lawmakers supportive of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.

You called the lawmakers' comments "a gross violation of the spirit of the rule of law, a blatant double standard and a gross interference in China's internal affairs."

He said that Hong Kong's 7.5 million people and the Chinese population as a whole rejected the actions of a "very small group of violent protesters" as well as "any interference of foreign forces."

You did not mention any specific lawmaker, but numerous U.S. senators and Congress members, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have affirmed the U.S. commitment to human rights and urged Hong Kong's government to end the standoff.

Congress also has the power to pass legislation affecting Hong Kong's relationship with the U.S. in ways that could further erode the territory's reputation for stability and rule of law. That includes the recent re-introduction of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in Congress, which would among its other provisions require the secretary of state to issue an annual certification of Hong Kong's autonomy to justify special treatment afforded to the city.

More directly, President Donald Trump could simply issue an executive order suspending Hong Kong's special trading status with the U.S., a move that could have a devastating effect on the local economy at a time when Beijing and Washington are engaged in a bitter trade war.

A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to Beijing in 1997 under the framework of "one country, two systems," which promised residents certain democratic rights not afforded to people in mainland China. But some Hong Kongers have accused the Communist Party-ruled central government of eroding their freedoms in recent years.

The protest movement's demands include Lam's resignation, democratic elections and an independent investigation into police use of force.

Harley Ho, a 20-year-old social work student who attended Sunday's rally, said protesters were undeterred by the rain and would not rest until their demands were met.

"We will stand here, we will take action until they respond to us," she said. "In the rain, our spirit becomes stronger."

Members of China's paramilitary People's Armed Police force have been training for days across the border in Shenzhen, including on Sunday morning, fueling speculation that they could be sent in to suppress the protests. The Hong Kong police, however, have said they are capable of handling the protests.

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