Hong Kong braced for another mass rally Monday as the city marks the anniversary of its handover to China, with attendance at an annual pro-democracy march likely to be bolstered by huge recent anti-government protests.
The semi-autonomous city has been shaken by historic demonstrations in the last three weeks, when protesters demanded the withdrawal of a bill that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.
The rallies are the latest manifestation of growing fears that China is stamping down on the city’s unique freedoms and culture with the help of the finance hub’s pro-Beijing leaders.
Although Hong Kong was returned from British to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, it is still administered separately under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”.
The city enjoys freedoms unseen on the autocratic mainland, but many residents fear Beijing is already reneging on that deal.
Pro-democracy activists have organized a march every handover anniversary, calling for greater democratic freedoms — such as the right to elect the city’s leader.
They have mustered large crowds in recent years but have failed to win any concessions from Beijing.
This year’s rally comes against the backdrop of unprecedented anti-government protests over the last three weeks and anger over police using tear gas and rubber bullets to clear crowds.
The spark for the current wave of protests was an attempt by chief executive Carrie Lam to pass the Beijing-backed extradition law, which she has now postponed following the huge public backlash.
But the demonstrations have morphed into a wider movement against Lam’s administration and Beijing.
Lam — who has kept out of the public eye since her climbdown and has record low approval ratings — is expected to attend a flag-raising ceremony on the harbourfront early Monday, marking the moment the city returned to Chinese ownership 22 years ago.
However, the event has been scaled back and barriers erected around the square over fears that anti-government protesters might try to disrupt the event.
The pro-democracy rally is scheduled to take place on Monday afternoon, following the same route the two mass rallies last month took — from a park to the city’s legislature.
Permission for a separate pro-Beijing rally has been granted to start at the same time in the same park — raising fears of confrontations.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of pro-establishment protesters rallied in support of Hong Kong’s police.
Many waved Chinese flags and hurled insults at anti-government demonstrators camped nearby, highlighting the deep ideological fissures now coursing through the finance hub.
Image: AFP / Anthony WALLACE Hong Kong has been rocked by the largest protests in a generation