Hong Kong is bracing itself for the first demonstration to be held under new police restrictions tomorrow as security forces conduct ominous civil unrest drills over the border in mainland China.
For the first time since the protests began 11 weeks ago, a ban has been imposed on holding a march. Instead, permission was given for an “assembly” in a park that can hold only 100,000 people, far less than the 1m-2m seen at previous rallies.
Today, thousands of pro-democracy protesters clad in their signature black and holding umbrellas took to the streets to show that their movement had kept the public’s support despite increasingly violent clashes with the police.
Some of the protesters wore surgical masks but not the full protective gear they have donned in past rallies in preparation for confrontation.
Tensions were high with no sign of the government giving in to demonstrators’ demands and persistent rumours that a crackdown by Chinese troops and police was imminent.
Today’s demonstration seemed to avoid the violent clashes of previous weekend protests and coincided with a rival, pro-China rally by people in support of the police who dressed in white and chanted: “Say no to violence! Save Hong Kong!”
In contrast to the anti-government rallies, which have been dominated by young people, this assembly was predominantly middle-aged and tightly marshalled, with two business tycoons seen in a VIP section.
About 20,000 teachers also braved the heavy rain for a rally, adding to a series of demonstrations organised by other professional groups.
Their protest came ahead of plans by schoolchildren to hold a series of one-day strikes. A poll of 19,473 pupils from 350 schools showed that around half intended to join the boycott while 90% were in support of it.
A smaller protest in Hung Hom, a district of outlet stores popular with mainland tourists, highlighted the growing tension between Hong Kong people and their mainland compatriots with protesters chanting, “Kick out the mainland tourists!”
The crisis has also, for the first time, led to dissent from members of the civil service who are contemplating anti-government demonstrations and circulating petitions criticising official policy.
The government’s response has been to warn its employees that they are acting unlawfully and would face serious consequences for “any violation of regulations”.
While China continues to accuse countries such as America and Britain of being the “black hands” behind the protest movement, a demonstration on Friday night for the first time focused its message on asking the British to intervene.
Protesters called on the UK to declare that Beijing had violated the Sino-British joint declaration, which paved the way for Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty to China in 1997. They also urged American legislators to fast track the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.
The demonstrators were encouraged by a proposal from Tom Tugendhat, the British MP, to give UK passports to Hong Kong people who were living in the former British colony at the time of the handover.
As of 2016, there were 143,200 holders of what are known as British National (Overseas) passports that do not bestow rights of residency in the UK but can be used for travel.
Hong Kong democrats expecting support from America have been confused by statements by President Donald Trump, who has called the problem an internal Chinese matter, linked its resolution to the Sino-US trade talks and also expressed confidence that President Xi Jinping can solve the conflict by meeting protesters.
This week, the Hong Kong government announced a package of financial giveaways valued at £2bn. Further giveaways are being considered as a means of placating the public.
However, Lam Cheuk-ting an opposition lawmaker, said it would make no difference because “this is a political — not an economic — issue”. He added: “You have to resolve the political crisis, so public opinion can be stabilised and the economy can recover.”