HONG KONG (REUTERS, NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG, AFP) - More than a million people thronged Hong Kong’s streets for a New Year’s Day pro-democracy march, organisers said, as protesters looked to carry their movement’s momentum into 2020.
“Based on the counting until 6.15pm and a comparison with the march on June 9, we believe the total turnout for today’s march has surpassed the 1.03 million on June 9,” the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) said in a statement, referring to the massive rally last year that kicked off the city’s pro-democracy campaign.
Authorities ordered organisers to end the rally earlier than planned after clashes between hardcore protesters and the police.
What had been a peaceful march to press authorities for more concessions deteriorated into tense scenes, with police firing tear gas to disperse protesters in Wan Chai district.
Frontline protesters quickly formed a line of defence, and some hurled petrol bombs at police, according to Reuters reporters on the ground.
Hong Kong has been embroiled in more than six months of anti-government protests that have now spilled into 2020, with protesters' demands including full democracy and an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality.
Wednesday’s protest is only the second large-scale demonstration to be authorised by the police since voters in November overwhelmingly elected pro-democracy politicians to neighbourhood offices. That vote, a stinging rebuke to Communist Party officials in China, ushered in the longest period of relative calm since the city was first convulsed by protests in June.
Crowds gathered mid-afternoon for the start of the march convened by the CHRF – organiser of some of the biggest rallies to rock the Asian financial centre over the past six months – across Hong Kong Island.
The march began just before 3pm along a 3.2km route approved by police. The protest route passed some of the city’s most iconic landmarks and buildings, stretching from Victoria Park to the Central business district.
Wednesday’s turnout could signal the staying power of the pro-democracy movement that has led to countless violent clashes with police, pushed the economy into recession and forced the cancellation of numerous events, including the New Year’s fireworks show.
"Nobody knows what this movement will eventually achieve, but most people are just doing what they can. If nobody comes out, then it would be the end of Hong Kong and all the beautiful things we are familiar with," said Ms Grace Ng, 30, a protester who works in public relations.
Thousands of Hong Kong revellers had earlier welcomed in 2020 on neon-lit promenades along the iconic skyline of Victoria Harbour, chanting the movement's signature eight-word Chinese protest couplet - "Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our Time" - for the final eight seconds before clocks struck midnight.
A sea of protesters then surged down Nathan Road, a major boulevard, blocking all lanes in a spontaneous march breaking out within minutes of the new decade. Some held signs reading "Let's keep fighting together in 2020".
Overnight, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets in several districts including Mong Kok, and sprayed crowds briefly with a water cannon after some roads were blocked.
One woman was hit in the face with a projectile, according to local media reports, and several arrests were made.
China's President Xi Jinping said in a New Year's speech that Beijing will "resolutely safeguard the prosperity and stability" of Hong Kong under the "one country, two systems" framework granting the city a high degree of autonomy under Chinese rule.
Protesters want the authorities to respond to their five key demands including full democracy and an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality.
Many are angered by Beijing's growing influence in the city which was promised a high degree of autonomy when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Beijing denies interference and blames the West for fomenting the unrest.
A group of 40 parliamentarians and dignitaries from 18 countries had written an open letter to Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam on New Year's Eve, urging her to "seek genuine ways forward out of this crisis by addressing the grievances of Hong Kong people".
In a year-end video message, Mrs Lam said that restoring social "order and harmony" should be the city’s resolution for 2020.
The protest movement is supported by 59 per cent of the city's residents polled in a survey conducted for Reuters by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute.
Police, who reject allegations of brutality and say they have shown restraint, have arrested nearly 6,500 people since the protests began escalating in what is the worst political crisis faced by the city in decades.
Protesters have thrown petrol bombs, rocks and bricks, with police responding with tear gas, water cannon, pepper spray, rubber bullets and occasional live rounds. There have been several injuries.