More than 10,000 people marched in Hong Kong on Sunday to press for open elections in 2017, staging the first mass rally since police cleared pro-democracy demonstrators from the streets in December.
Protesters rallied in the financial district known as Central, and the prop that came to define the fall 2014 protests -- the canary yellow umbrella -- was ubiquitous, despite there being nary a threat of rain. But Sunday's mood was perceptibly muted.
Whereas large throngs of university and high school students energized the autumn protests, the latest demonstration attracted a noticeably older crowd. Among the marchers were new coalitions, such as the Progressive Lawyers Group and Umbrella Parents, whose members said they believed it was time to take a proactive role in what so far has been a predominantly student-led movement.
The event felt less like a pep rally and more like a strategy session for those most determined to carry on their fight.
“The most important mission upon us right now is: How can we win over the other half of Hong Kong?” said Alan Leong, a legislator in the so-called pan-democratic camp of the territory's Legislative Council.
The most recent public opinion polls indicate 41% of Hong Kongers are willing to accept the 2017 electoral rules put forth by China’s central government, while 46% of respondents supported the campaign to press for free elections for the city’s highest office.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, reverted to Chinese rule 17 years ago under a framework known as “one country, two systems,” which supposedly ensures the territory of 7 million a substantial degree of autonomy for 50 years.
In August, the standing committee of China’s National People's Congress, or NPC, laid down a framework for future elections of the territory’s chief executive, in effect limiting the choice of candidates to only two or three approved by a nominating committee that is expected to be composed largely of people regarded as “pro-Beijing.”
The framework touched off unprecedented street protests lasting 10 weeks, with thousands of demonstrators clogging major thoroughfares and surrounding government headquarters. The sit-ins ended in mid-December after police acting on a court order cleared the streets.
On Sunday, the demonstrators occasionally chanted in unison: “NPC doesn’t represent me. No to fake democracy!”
The election framework handed down by the NPC still has to win approval from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to take effect.
At Sunday’s rally, pan-democratic legislator Albert Ho said he plans to quit in a few months in a bid to bring more pressure to bear on the government over the election rules.
Ho’s resignation would trigger an election that could serve as a de facto referendum on the NPC election framework. The pan-democratic bloc has repeatedly vowed to block the proposal, though it’s unclear whether its members can muster enough votes.
The NPC framework would, for the first time, give Hong Kong voters their first chance to vote directly for the chief executive. Until now, the position has been elected by a 1,200-member nominating committee.
The city’s No. 2 official, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, has acknowledged that “the NPC decision still ties our hands on who can get on the ballot,” but she argued that the territory’s 5 million eligible voters can have fair, transparent and competitive elections.
Ann Wong, who attended Sunday’s rally with her teenage children Chloe and Michael, said she wasn’t persuaded by such arguments.
“By being here today, we can tell the government officials they don’t have public opinion on their side,” Wong said.
Her son, Michael, 16, said he hopes to volunteer for a high-school student group that has been active in the democracy campaign.
Student leaders of the pro-democracy movement have vowed to spearhead another wave of civil disobedience this year, when Hong Kong legislators must decide whether to endorse the electoral framework put forth by the NPC.
Last week, NPC delegate and city legislator Stanley Ng, a member of the pro-Beijing bloc, suggested that the mass pro-democracy rallies of 2014 point up the need for the territory to pass some form of national security law.
Hong Kong is governed under its own mini-constitution called the Basic Law, which enshrines freedoms not protected elsewhere in China.
The government's last attempt to pass an antisubversion bill, in 2003, galvanized nearly half a million protesters to take to the streets.
Lam warned last month that a repeat of 2014’s civil disobedience would not win concessions from the central Chinese government or the local administration, led by the Beijing-backed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.
“Extreme and illegal means to strive for democracy … will only narrow the political space,” she warned. “Beijing has the final say.”
Law is a special correspondent.