Press "Enter" to skip to content

Hong Kong protesters defy threats from Beijing, police and heavy rain for huge — and peaceful — march 

Protesters take part in a rally as they march on a street on August 18, 2019 in Hong Kong, China (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
August 18 at 8:10 AM

Hundreds of thousands of residents gathered Sunday for yet another massive show of defiance that paralyzed central Hong Kong in the face of threats of military force from Beijing and an intensifying police crackdown. 

Although authorities did not grant permission for a march and a torrential downpour soaked demonstrators, a spontaneous procession made its way haphazardly across the city while defiantly chanting calls for freedom and repudiation of alleged police brutality.

After two months of sustained dissent, the movement is now entering a pivotal moment: Hong Kong police have deployed unprecedented force, including in residential neighborhoods, and made over 700 arrests to discourage further unrest; protesters and pro-establishment groups have clashed violently; and Beijing has ramped up pressure to bring international corporations to heel. But as the stakes rise sharply, activists exhorted Hong Kongers on Sunday to “no longer stay silent.” 

“Over the last two months in Hong Kong, we’ve shed blood, sweat, and tears,” said the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the organizer of the rally, in an open letter. “Hong Kongers have endured enough humiliation by the Hong Kong Government and the Hong Kong Police.”

CHRF organizers, who had previously organized marches in June that saw millions attend, feared that attendance this time would be affected by bad weather and an airport fracas this week that marred the movement’s image. Police also rejected their demands for a march from Victoria Park to central Hong Kong and urged the rally to stay put inside the park, fearing that a moving procession would spark chaos and possibly violence.

Organizers’ concerns about turnout appeared to be unfounded, however, as Victoria Park quickly overflowed with people despite pouring rain and gusting winds. So many emerged for the rally that major thoroughfares near Victoria Park were log-jammed.

The large turnout, which forced the closure of roads and diverted traffic, was the latest indicator of the pro-autonomy movement’s unflagging momentum, even after ugly scenes at Hong Kong’s airport Tuesday where frenzied mobs effectively took two Chinese men hostage for a short time and blocked passengers from boarding planes. It also underscored protester resilience in the face of an escalating crackdown by authorities and rhetoric in Beijing that has sought to brand them as terrorists.

China’s People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force, have been practicing crowd control tactics in Shenzhen, the Chinese city connected to Hong Kong, over the past week. 

“They are doing it to scare us,” said Jeff, a 36-year-old manager at a logistics firm who took a break from the rain-soaked march. He pushed back at China’s depiction of the protesters as radicals. “Hong Kong is part of China, but Hong Kong people deserve to have our rights and our benefits,” said Jeff, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisal from authorities.

“We want to fight for freedom, fight about the extradition, fight about police, about housing, about our rights,” he added. 

A protester puts on an eye-patch in solidarity with the woman who was injured in the eye in an anti-government rally in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, China, Aug. 18, 2019. (Vivek Prakash/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Violence has colored previous rallies and the prospect loomed over the event on Sunday. Many opposition figures hoped the rally would help restore the movement’s international image after protesters at the airport were branded as extremists earlier in the week.

When protesters used laser pointers to provoke police guarding government buildings, others scolded them and called for restraint. Wong Yik-Mo, one of the leaders of CHRF, said he believed a majority of protesters wanted a peaceful demonstration. 

“There’s a consensus everyone will be restrained,” he said. “It’ll be in the police’s hands whether to provoke us, whether to fire tear gas.”

The police presence remained light through the afternoon and there was no attempt to block the route of the march. But a front-line police officer, who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to press, said water cannons — a new crowd-dispersal tool police have in their arsenal — were on standby. 

Protesters are above all demanding an independent investigation into the police and their use of force to quell the demonstrations, including mass arrests, tear gas fired in almost all of Hong Kong’s districts and the use of projectiles including bean bag rounds. Some carried signs showing a one-eyed young woman, a reference to a medical worker who was hit in the eye by a projectile last Sunday during clashes between police and protesters. Police say they cannot confirm how the woman was injured.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong government “expressed regret” at the protest’s focus the police.

“Many police stations were attacked or besieged for over 75 times [during the protests]. The Police have been handling these illegal acts with tolerance,” the spokesman said in a statement. “Only when they were violently attacked and left with no choice did the Police use minimum force to disperse protesters in order to restore social order.”

The government “appealed to those participating in public meetings and processions to express their views in a peaceful and rational manner and say ‘no’ to violence so that Hong Kong can resume order as soon as possible, return to rationality and regain momentum.,” the statement added.

Helen Ho, a housewife from the outlying Sha Tin neighborhood, prepared to enter Victoria Park on Sunday with her 2-year-old son strapped to her chest. Her husband Samuel, a teacher, cradled their 1-year-old daughter.

Ho said she was tired of watching police officials hold daily news conferences saying they use limited force even as they fire tear gas into empty streets and take aim at places filled with civilians.

“At this point it is very clear they can do anything they want then say anything. It doesn’t make sense,” Ho said as she put a pacifier in her son’s mouth. 

She worries that violence would erupt again, and she would take her children home in a few hours. “We need to show our voice about police brutality and fight for their future,” Ho said as chants of “Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!” rang through the park.

Even as night fell, front-line masked protesters who usually arm themselves with bricks, shields and other makeshift weapons to square off with police remained restrained, urged by others nearby not to fall into “police traps.”

Protesters stand on Harcourt Road overlooking the Legislative Council during a rally in Hong Kong on Aug. 18, 2019, in the latest opposition to a planned extradition law that has since morphed into a wider call for democratic rights in the semi-autonomous city. (Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images)

Protesters urged each other not to gather around Beijing’s liaison office in the city, a previous target that on Sunday was heavily guarded by riot police, to keep the evening totally peaceful.

Paranoia has been high in the movement after undercover police dressed as protesters in masks and black outfits made arrests last weekend.

Protests were also held on Saturday in Hong Kong, one of them organized by teachers who said they feared for their young students who have been at the forefront of the protests. 

Concurrent marches were held in cities around the world, including New York, Boston, London, Toronto, Sydney and Melbourne, to express solidarity for the Hong Kong movement.