Biggest Hong Kong protest in months signals more unrest in 2020

A riot police officer removes a traffic cone thrown by a protester to block the traffic, outside Mong Kok station in Hong Kong, on Dec 9, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS
Pro-democracy protesters march into the night in Hong Kong, on Dec 8, 2019. PHOTO: AP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong saw its biggest pro-democracy protest in months on Sunday (Dec 8), signalling more unrest to come in 2020 as the movement that began in June to fight China's increasing grip on the city shows its staying power.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators flooded the city's major downtown boulevards, many waving United States flags, singing "Glory to Hong Kong" and chanting "Five demands, not one less".

The protests were largely peaceful throughout the afternoon, though at night tensions emerged between riot police and some demonstrators. Some protesters also called for disruptions to the commute on Monday morning.

The rally was the first organised by the Civil Human Rights Front to get police approval since August, prompting many Hong Kongers who normally wouldn't risk joining an illegal assembly to hit the streets. The show of force follows a landslide victory for pro-democracy forces in local elections last month.

"Yet another breathtaking display of Hong Kongers' political might," said Ms Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker who joined the march on Sunday.

"By now it's obvious the Hong Kong fight will go on, we will soldier on," she said. "This may last for the generations to come."

Mrs Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's leader backed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, has refused to give in to demands including an independent inquiry into police violence and meaningful elections for the city's top political positions. The demonstrations have maintained popular support even as the economy slid into a recession.

"Should Carrie Lam or the Beijing regime continue to ignore the outcry, Hong Kongers will continue to resist the government by peaceful and not-so-peaceful means," said Mr Fernando Cheung, another opposition lawmaker.

The protesters have sought to pressure the government with a combination of peaceful mass marches, like the one on Sunday afternoon; and more violent actions like shutting down transport networks, vandalising mainland-linked businesses and seizing universities. Police have made more than 6,000 arrests, while coming under fire for abuses in seeking to contain the demonstrations.

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Earlier on Sunday, police said they arrested 11 people while seizing a semi-automatic pistol, bulletproof jackets, retractable batons and pepper spray in the raid. They suspected an "extreme" group of people would try to attack police or "create chaos" during the rally.

Mrs Lam's government withdrew a Bill allowing extraditions to the mainland that originally sparked the protests, and called for dialogue on the other demands. China has sought to portray the issues as largely economic in nature, while refusing to offer a political solution.

The protesters on Sunday vowed to keep on fighting into 2020, when Hong Kong is scheduled to hold elections for the Legislative Council.

Kelvin, a 30-year-old salesman who declined to give his last name, also said the protesters were "building our own economics".

"I know a lot of businesses take sides, so we are going for the side that supports democracy," he said. "Our government is not responding to any of them so that's why we are still here."

Companies have got caught in the middle of the protests. Chinese retailers and branches of lenders like Bank of China have been ransacked, while Cathay Pacific Airways and the United States National Basketball Association have come under pressure from Beijing after employees supported the demonstrations.

Over the weekend, the heads of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong were denied entry to Macau and sent back, with no explanation given.

"We hope that this is just an overreaction to current events and that international business can constructively forge ahead," the chamber said in a statement.

Last Saturday, hundreds of pro-government demonstrators gathered in Wan Chai, waving China and Hong Kong flags while condemning the violent protests and vandalism of the past months.

Organisers told local media Ming Pao that they think the vote for local district councils last month was unfair and called for actions to rebut the protesters' plans for a general strike on Monday.

Sunday's large turnout showed that the government will be "living in a fantasy" if they believe the protests will die down early next year, particularly with the holidays of Christmas and Chinese New Year coming up, said Mr Alvin Yeung, a lawmaker in the pro-democracy camp.

"People are still very eager to fight for what they have been fighting for," he said. "It's not the end yet - it's far from the end."

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