A sea of democracy activists flooded the streets of Hong Kong Sunday under torrential rains in a peaceful demonstration to city leaders that their movement still draws wide public support, despite mounting violence and increasingly stark warnings from Beijing. It concluded a weekend of peaceful gatherings and protests that saw no tear gas used by police for the first time in 11 weeks.
Hundreds of thousands of umbrella-carrying protesters began in Victoria Park and marched to different districts on Hong Kong island, defying both the downpour and a police order not to march from the park where they had gathered earlier for a rally.
Sunday’s action, billed as a return to the peaceful origins of the leaderless protest movement, drew more than 1.7 million people, according to its organisers, the Civil Human Rights Front. This makes it one of the largest rallies since the protests began about three months ago. Police said only that the approved rally in the park reached an estimated 128,000 people, not including those packed into the many surrounding streets.
In a change of tone, a government spokesman this time did not use the word “condemn” and described the rally as “generally peaceful”, even though the demonstrators, he noted, had occupied main roads, causing traffic jams and disruption.
The Front had to confine Sunday’s event to a rally in Victoria Park as police banned a march, citing safety concerns.
But in the end the sheer numbers meant organisers had to start a procession to allow people to move. They said police accepted their decision and they did not think they were breaking the law.
“The most important thing currently is to restore social order as soon as possible. The government will begin sincere dialogue with the public, mend social rifts and rebuild social harmony when everything has calmed down,” the spokesman said.
The march saw both the young and old take to the streets. A student running a booth advocating an upcoming anti-extradition bill school strike, surnamed Lo, said, "With how intense the social movements have become after suppression by the government and the actions by 'black cops', we feel we as Hongkongers must do our duty and inform people that we secondary students care about society".
Anger has been sharpened among protesters by the perceived heavy-handedness of the police, who have used tear gas, baton charges and rubber bullets in incidents that have gained wide attention on social media.
“The police are doing things that are totally unacceptable,” said Yim, a protester who like many others gave only one name.
“They are hurting citizens. They aren’t protecting us.”
Many among Sunday’s rally-goers carried backpacks stuffed with protest paraphernalia - laser pens, gas masks, goggles and helmets.
“We have our gear with us, but we hope not to use it,” said a 30-year-old identifying himself only as Man.
Late in the evening hundreds of masked protesters briefly gathered outside the government headquarters shouting “Reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our times” before dispersing.
Opinions among the protesters have diverged over the billowing violence, which has seen a small hardcore group using rocks, Molotov cocktails and slingshots against the police.
Some say the violence has driven the pro-democracy movement in an uncomfortable direction.
“There are some expressing extreme views,” said rally-goer Ray Cheng.
“But we have tried many times with peaceful approaches... I really hope the government can listen to us.”