Thousands of Hongkongers marked the first day of 2017 with a street protest against the government’s push to disqualify four pro-democracy lawmakers, while Beijing’s top man in the city spelled out the limits as he warned against independence advocacy.
The Civil Human Rights Front, which organised the New Year’s Day rally, put the turnout at more than 9,000, and apologised for the relatively low number. Police put the turnout at 4,800 at the peak.
The organiser attributed the low turnout to the lack of a central figure to draw opposing crowds after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced last month that he would not seek a second term because of family reasons. “Many citizens thought all problems would be resolved after Leung’s withdrawal and were relieved,” Front convenor Au Nok-hin said.
The annual rally went ahead as Zhang Xiaoming, director of Beijing’s liaison office, who had skipped a number of public events and not spoken publicly since Leung’s stunning announcement, broke his silence in an exclusive interview with state broadcaster CCTV.
He said the “one country, two systems” policy had achieved “universally acknowledged success” in the 20 years since its implementation, but the rise of radical separatism in Hong Kong should be faced squarely.
He spelled out three bottom lines that should not be breached: harming national security; challenging the authority of the central government and Basic Law; and using the city as a base to infiltrate and subvert the mainland.
The theme of this year’s march was to oppose the government’s court campaign to unseat four pro-democracy legislators – Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Edward Yiu Chung-yim, Lau Siu-lai and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung – over improper oath-taking.
“We are here to oppose political suppression,” Sarah Chen Sin-yu, a University of Hong Kong student, said. “It is very unfair of the government to use taxpayers’ money to disqualify lawmakers popularly returned by voters.”
Some said Leung’s decision to retire had not dampened their enthusiasm to join the procession as they were still worried his successor would continue his hardline style of governance.
“All the chief executive aspirants now are undesirable,” Albert So, 53, said, referring to Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, executive councillor and lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing.
The recent controversy surrounding the deal to create a Hong Kong version of the Palace Museum at the West Kowloon Cultural District had revealed Lam’s disregard for public opinion, he added.
With donation booths set up along the rally’s route from Causeway Bay to Central, the Justice Defence Fund announced it had raised HK$1.42 million yesterday, taking the total to HK$1.83 million. The money will be used to pay legal costs for the four lawmakers in their court battle.
The government issued a statement saying while it respected their electoral mandates and Hongkongers’ right to protest, it was equally important for lawmakers to take their oath in keeping with the legal requirements.