Hundreds of thousands took to Hong Kong’s streets yesterday, defying military threats from Beijing and torrential rain in efforts to reset the tone of a political movement that has engulfed the city all summer.
Demonstrators started filtering in to a massive park early in the afternoon after police had approved a public gathering. Many brought their children along.
But the crowds were so big that they spilt out into side streets, eventually marching peacefully through several neighbourhoods. Some chanted the slogan “Hong Kong people, add oil!” while others waved signs that read “Our spirit will never die!”.
Organisers estimated 1.78 million protesters turned out, with police putting the number at just 128,000.
As a downpour suddenly started, a pizza parlour began handing out free slices, and taped signs to the window saying “Cheer Up, Hong Kong”. Nearby a bakery’s shelves were wiped clean as some protesters seeking brief refuge from the rain grabbed snacks.
Hong Kong is embroiled in its worst political crisis since the former British colony was returned to Beijing rule in 1997.
Protesters first took to the streets against a now-suspended extradition bill that would have sent people to face trial in mainland China, where Communist Party control of the courts contributes to a 99.9pc conviction rate.
Still, people stayed in the streets, demanding the government formally withdraw the bill to prevent lawmakers from quickly tabling and passing the legislation in the future. Their calls have also expanded to include broader reforms, such as direct leadership elections.
But a five-day occupation of the airport last week briefly turned ugly and threatened to splinter public opinion against the political movement, which has enjoyed broad support.
Hundreds of flights were cancelled, leaving thousands stranded. On Tuesday, protesters swarmed around two men suspected of being spies, and one officer pulled out a gun as he fell to the floor after being beaten by protesters with his own baton.
As a result, demonstrators issued an apology, and calls were issued all week for rallies to stay peaceful, especially as concerns grew that Beijing might make good on its hints that it was ready to intervene militarily.
“Hong Kong people can be totally peaceful,” said Jimmy Sham, a representative with the Civil Human Rights Front, the pro-democracy group that organised yesterday’s gathering, at the podium.
Last night, it appeared protesters had stuck to their resolve to have a big showing with no run-ins with police, who were in full riot gear.