Hong Kong was readying for a massive pro-democracy rally Wednesday after seeing in the New Year with an evening of peaceful protests that morphed into tear gas-choked clashes between hardcore demonstrators and police.
The city has been battered by more than six months of unrest with millions marching, as well as confrontations in which police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets, while protesters have responded with petrol bombs.
Thousands gathered before midnight across the financial hub, including along Victoria Harbour and at nightlife hotspot Lan Kwai Fong. Protesters at the harbourfront counted down chanting “Ten! Nine! Liberate Hong Kong, revolution now!” as they lit up their phones.
Smaller crowds in the Mong Kok district set fire to barricades, before riot police unleashed 2020’s first volleys of tear gas in response. Police had also used water cannon to disperse protesters in the same area, and in nearby Prince Edward officers arrested several protesters staging a candlelight vigil.
Earlier in the evening, thousands of people linked arms in human chains that stretched for miles along busy shopping streets and through local neighbourhoods. They chanted slogans, sang “Glory to Hong Kong” — a protest anthem — and held up posters calling for people to fight for democracy against China in 2020.
“Thanks to 2019, which tore off the ugly masks of the police and the government and let the people see the truth,” said protester Kris, a medic who joined protest. “The movement is kind of like at its bottleneck now. Hopefully a huge turnout at tomorrow’s march could bring back people’s passion,” he added.
In late November, the city’s pro-democracy camp scored a landslide victory in a municipal-level vote seen as a referendum on the China-backed government’s handling of political unrest.
The protest movement has since become quieter but sporadic clashes have persisted. But protesters have vowed to continue their effort to push for greater democratic freedoms and police accountability.
Thousands gathered before midnight across the financial hub, including along Victoria Harbour and at nightlife hotspot Lan Kwai Fong
The Civil Human Rights Front, the chief organiser of marches, is hoping for a huge turnout at Wednesday’s rally to urge the government to respond to the demands of the pro-democracy movement — which include an independent inquiry into the police, amnesty for arrestees and fully free elections.
Police have arrested nearly 6,500 people since June — nearly a third of them aged under 20. “The youngsters have sacrificed a lot for justice… 2019 is a wake-up call,” a 63-year-old retiree, who gave his surname as Shiu, told AFP.
“People will be more determined in the new year. People know that the future of Hong Kong depends on whether we can achieve the five demands.”
The demonstrations were sparked by a now-abandoned bill to allow extraditions to the authoritarian mainland, but have since evolved into a popular revolt against Beijing’s control — the biggest crisis since the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.
US Democracy vs China’s Communism
In a surprise move just before Thanksgiving, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in support of the pro-democracy movement there. Given its inclusion of a requirement to reexamine Hong Kong’s special trade status each year, the move seemed to have worked as China agreed to resuming trade talks with the US in January 2020.
China’s foreign ministry summons US Ambassador Terry Branstad to protest against the passing in the US Congress of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, saying it amounts to interference in an internal Chinese matter.https://t.co/6uHnMiORUe
— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) November 26, 2019
The tension between the United States and China over the Hong Kong protests and ongoing trade war is emblematic of a greater shift in power relations. China’s successful economic and geopolitical rise has positioned Beijing to push an agenda that is antithetical to the political and economic order Washington champions.
Global democracy uprising
The year 2019 will be remembered as the year of protests. From Hong Kong to the Middle East and North Africa to Europe and Latin America, the street was—often literally—on fire. It was a reminder that even as anti-democratic and right-wing forces take hold in many places around the world, grassroots democracy is alive and well. In some cases, popular protests are still ongoing, such as in Hong Kong, with no clear end in sight.
In others, protesters seem to have prevailed, such as in Chile, where what began as anger at subway fare hikes may end with a new, more progressive constitution. In still others, whether Sudan or Algeria, protests may have ousted unpopular leaders, but they haven’t been able to effect a root-and-branch change in government.
A surprising number of protests started with popular anger over seemingly small things: fuel price hikes in a number of cases, from Iran to Ecuador, or fare hikes in Chile, or a WhatsApp tax in Lebanon. In other cases, such as Hong Kong and Indonesia, protesters took to the streets after governments announced new laws that threatened civil liberties.
But in all cases, popular ire, once unleashed, found much bigger targets: corruption, political dysfunction, and a general discontent with economic stewardship that seems to offer little promise for a lost generation.
GVS News Desk with additions from news agencies