HONG KONG - Protesters removed barricades in Harcourt Road late on Sunday (Aug 18) night, allowing traffic to resume, as Hong Kong saw its first largely peaceful rallies this weekend in nearly three months of protests against a now-suspended extradition Bill.
Thousands of protesters had lingered in Harcourt Road on Sunday night, prompting police to issue a warning for them to disperse. The police said the protesters had “shot hard objects at the Central Government Complex with slingshots and aimed laser beams at police officers”, posing a safety threat.
Protesters there also briefly surrounded a mainland Chinese man and questioned his identity after he was spotted trying to take photos.
Traffic at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel was also disrupted by protesters earlier.
All MTR services resumed on Sunday night.
Protesters gathered on Sunday night at the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Forces Hong Kong Building in Central, and the Central Government Complex next to it, after marching from Causeway Bay to Central.
LAM NEEDS TO SHOW PEACEFUL EXPRESSION CAN BE HEARD: RALLY ORGANISERS
Mr Jimmy Sham, convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) which organised Sunday's rally, said 1.7 million people attended the group's event at Victoria Park. But police said 128,000 people joined the rally at its peak.
"Today has been peaceful, which is exactly what Carrie Lam asked for," Mr Sham said, referring to Hong Kong's Chief Executive.
"I also believe there won't be clashes tonight. I trust in Hongkongers' wisdom. Carrie Lam must respond to the five demands in order to show Hongkongers peaceful and rational expression can be heard, accepted and met," he said. The five demands include the withdrawal of the extradition Bill, an independent probe into allegations of police brutality, and for more democracy in the territory.
"If she continues to turn a deaf ear, she is instigating more radical struggles," he added.
In a statement on Sunday night, a government spokesman noted that while the rally was largely peaceful, there were inconveniences caused to the public with the disruption to traffic after protesters occupied key roads.
The spokesman reiterated that it was most important to restore social order as soon as possible, adding that the government will "begin sincere dialogue with the public, mend social rifts and rebuild social harmony when everything has calmed down".
MASSIVE RALLY PLANNED FOR AUG 31
Mr Sham said CHRF has applied for another march from Chater Garden to Beijing's Liaison Office in the western part of Hong Kong island on Aug 31.
In an open letter to Hongkongers on Sunday, the CHRF said: "Today is not an ending. The path of resistance is long, because, ultimately, only democratic universal suffrage can fundamentally turn around the current situation of unfettered violence from the regime.
"Aug 31 is the fifth anniversary of the National People's Congress's undemocratic and restrictive decision on universal suffrage in Hong Kong. We ask you all to commit to stand together, and to come out again on Aug 31!"
Mr Sham said the CHRF will also lodge a judicial review against the police ban on the Sunday (Aug 18) afternoon march.
For the first time, police banned the CHRF from holding a march - originally planned from Victoria Park to Chater Garden - and allowed it to organise only a static rally in the park that can accommodate some 100,000 people.
Earlier on Sunday afternoon, the crowds, battered by heavy rain, had gone ahead with the march after gathering at Victoria Park in the city's 11th consecutive weekend of demonstrations against the controversial Bill.
Ms Michelle Wen, 23, a student at Hong Kong Education University, told The Straits Times: "We have typhoons in Hong Kong, and people still go to work. Some rain is not going to stop people from coming out to speak up for a cause they believe in."
With Victoria Park packed to the gills, some protesters started marching towards Wan Chai and Admiralty, with many spilling onto major roads in Causeway Bay, including Hennessy Road, Yee Wo Road and Pennington Street, after leaving the park.
One group of protesters reached Admiralty, near the government headquarters and the legislature, while another group reached Chater Road in Central, according to local media. Protesters were told by CHRF to disperse from Chater Road.
The Front billed the gathering at Victoria Park on Sunday as a peaceful, rational and non-violent rally. It is the organiser of massive rallies seen in the past three months: the June 9 march that drew a crowd of a million people and the June 16 march that clocked two million participants - the largest since the city was handed back to the Chinese from the British in 1997.
By 2pm, the park was packed with people, mostly clad in black and some with young children in tow. The rally participants chanted, "Hong Kong yahn, gah yau" in Cantonese, or "Hong Kong people, keep it up", as well as "Free Hong Kong, democracy now" in English.
Meanwhile, several bus routes were re-routed or suspended due to the crowds marching on the roads. Some trains would not stop at Tin Hau, Causeway Bay and Fortress Hill MTR stations as they became very crowded and special train services were deployed to help people leave Tin Hau station, the MTR Corporation said.
Among those who turned up for the rally was pro-democracy group Demosisto’s Isaac Cheng, 19, who was giving out flyers asking people to boycott classes when the new school term starts in September.
When asked if the massive number of arrests have impacted students’ determination to carry on protesting when the new school term starts, Mr Cheng told The Straits Times that there has been some impact as the frontline protesters have already been subject to violence by the riot police. But he believes this has little effect on the student protesters whom he said will press on.
"Under this kind of abnormal circumstance, we are no longer able to go back to school. We have to boycott classes and fight with the government till the end," he added.
Student Parker Chan, 20, said he is afraid of being arrested, but still joined the protests as he finds the police unreasonable and that the government has failed to address their demands to fully withdraw the now-suspended extradition Bill, among other things.
"Those arrested can get charged with illegal assembly and rioting. These are very serious charges so people are afraid," he told ST.
RADICAL PROTESTERS MULLING RISKS OF BEING ARRESTED
Observers said that after last Sunday's arrests of protesters during clashes with the police, the more radical ones are now "really considering the overall risks for mounting either a Hong Kong-wide protest or to concentrate in one area".
"The risks for both strategies would have been elevated because in the past, they believed that if they have enough manpower to spread around, they can wear down the police. This tactic has proven to have failed given last Sunday's massive arrests," associate professor Dixon Sing of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology told ST.
For the first weekend in almost three months, protests on Saturday were largely peaceful with no bloodshed or chaos and devoid of violent clashes on the streets between riot police and protesters.
Over the past two months, marches often started out peacefully but descended into violence, with protesters clashing with police who deploy tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.
On Saturday, thousands gathered in the Hung Hom district for a march amid a light drizzle where they walked from Hoi Sham Park to Whampoa in Kowloon to Whampoa MTR Station.
While most of the protesters who took part in the march had stopped at the approved end point at Whampoa MTR station, others deviated into other areas.
They headed towards To Kwa Wan where they threw eggs and spray-painted the walls of the workers' club of the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions (FTU). They said the FTU are the true rioters for their involvement in the 1967 leftist riots.
Other demonstrators continued on to Mongkok, where they surrounded the Mongkok Police Station, which had put up netting to prevent objects from getting tossed in.
Earlier on Hong Kong Island, thousands gathered in a rally in Tamar Park in Admiralty in a show of support for Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, her administration and the police.
The rally, billed as anti-violence, had many participants waving Chinese flags and singing the Chinese national anthem.
Organiser of the pro-government rally, Safeguard Hong Kong Alliance, pegged the turnout at 476,000 people. It added that the protesters have disrupted social order and the rule of law and are destroying Hong Kong.
In the morning, heavy showers did not stop thousands of teachers and students from showing up for a march that called for the Hong Kong government to address protesters' demands.
Demonstrators gathered at Chater Garden in Central, just hours after a pro-independence rally at the same park the night before.
Protests began four months ago when the Hong Kong government mooted a controversial Bill - now suspended - that would allow the authorities to extradite people to countries it has no formal extradition agreements with, including mainland China.
The anti-extradition protests have since morphed into a broader movement seeking universal suffrage and an independent probe into police's handling of the protests.
So far, the police have arrested some 750 protesters since the June 9 protests.