HONG KONG - The city is bracing for renewed tensions on Sunday (Dec 8) with a march approved by the authorities expected to draw a huge turnout.
Over the past few days while attention has been focused on Hong Kong's economic outlook, netizens have been drumming up support for the march which is being seen as a litmus test of the support for the anti-government movement amid a weakening economy.
The Civil Human Rights Front, the group behind some of the city's biggest protests, is expecting a massive turnout for the procession to protect human rights. The first organised by the Front to be approved in months, the march is due to begin at 3pm at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay and will proceed to Chater Garden in Central.
Responding to the planned Human Rights Day event, the government defended the city's human rights track record, saying the public have had "unquestionable freedom of peaceful assembly, of procession and of demonstration."
Over the past five years, Hong Kong has held about 44,000 public assemblies and 6,000 public processions - an average of about 27 such events a day, it pointed out in a statement.
Since June, there had been over 900 public demonstrations, processions and public meetings, of which many ended in violent and illegal confrontations including arson and vandalism, the government added. It said it hoped that when people expressed their views and opinions, they would do so without infringing on others' rights and freedom.
Hong Kong police commissioner Chris Tang told the media in Beijing that police would take a "humanistic" approach to minor incidents but warned of resolute measures against violence. But he added that he hoped the march would be peaceful.
The rally will be taking place amid growing concerns about the state of the Hong Kong economy but two top city officials have offered contrasting views for the future, one more positive than the other.
Commerce and Economic Development Secretary Edward Yau said on Saturday the economy would soldier on and may pick up in 2020.
His prognosis, delivered on a local radio programme, followed Financial Secretary Paul Chan's warning that months of protests cost the economy two percentage points last quarter.
Mr Yau offered listeners a more upbeat view, saying the pick up in Hong Kong's economy would ride on the back of progress in trade talks between the United States and China, and as the anti-government unrest, which has gripped the city for almost seven months, fades away.
"On the US-China trade war, I hope that we are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, with the sitting down of the two leaders and the teams, hopefully we will be having some easing of that tension, which will create a better environment for us hopefully in the new year," said Mr Yau.
He also said dialogue between the government and society was necessary to resolve the current political crisis, adding that while the retail and tourism sectors had been badly hit, professional and financial services remained "very much intact".
"If Hong Kong can maintain its ease of doing business, a place where we lay out a level playing field for all, a place where law and order can be maintained, I think confidence will be able to come back.
"So, we are struggling, but I think we will soldier on and we will bounce back," Mr Yau said.
In contrast, Mr Chan on Monday painted a grim outlook, saying the ongoing unrest has shaved two percentage points from the economy which is already in a precarious position.
The economy has suffered a technical recession for the first time in a decade after growth contracted for two consecutive quarters, shrinking by 3.2 per cent in the third quarter from a year ago.
The slump was driven by a plunge in imports and exports, retail sales, and tourism figures as the months-long protests compounded damage from the drawn-out trade war between the US and China.
On Wednesday, Mr Chan pledged an extra HK$4 billion (S$695 million) in new relief measures to prop up the economy and businesses, taking total planned spending on stimulus measures to HK$25 billion.
While speaking on a separate radio programme on Saturday, Mr Chan said he would consider giving cash handouts when drawing up the 2020-2021 Budget. But he cautioned that the government would be in deficit in the coming years and had to consider fiscal policy over the long-term as the downturn could be "protracted".
On Saturday afternoon, hundreds of pro-government supporters assembled in Wan Chai, protesting against the pan-democrats' use of "unscrupulous means to become district councillors" and blaming the media for spreading "fake news".
Anti-government protesters for their part gathered in Edinburgh Place in Central to show support for Indonesian domestic helper Yuli Riswati, who is also an award-winning writer. On Monday the authorities deported her for failing to extend her visa, a move her supporters alleged was politically motivated.