Thursday 19 September 2019

More Hong Kong protests to cripple city after massive peaceful rally

Trump calls on China for 'humanitarian' solution

Protest: Anti-extradition bill marchers gather in front of the government complex during a rally to demand democracy and political reforms in Hong Kong. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
Protest: Anti-extradition bill marchers gather in front of the government complex during a rally to demand democracy and political reforms in Hong Kong. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Farah Master

Hong Kong is gearing up for further protests this week after hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators braved heavy rain to rally peacefully on Sunday, marking a change to what have often been violent clashes.

Hong Kong is gearing up for further protests this week after hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators braved heavy rain to rally peacefully on Sunday, marking a change to what have often been violent clashes.

Sunday's massive turnout, which organisers put at 1.7 million, showed the movement still has wide support despite chaotic scenes last week when protesters occupied the Chinese-ruled city's airport.

Some activists apologised for the airport turmoil and protesters could be seen urging others to go home peacefully.

Police said yesterday that while Sunday's demonstration was mostly peaceful, there were breaches of the peace when some protesters defaced public buildings and aimed laser beams at officers.

It was a far cry from the violent clashes between protesters and riot police throughout the summer, with activists storming the legislature and targeting China's main liaison office in the city. The weekend was also noteworthy for a lack of tear gas use by police.

The protests, which have presented one of the biggest challenges for Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012, began in June as opposition to a now-suspended bill to allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts. They have since swelled into wider calls for democracy.

Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula which promised wide-ranging freedoms denied to citizens in mainland China, including an independent judiciary, but many in the city believe Beijing has been eroding those freedoms.

Aside from Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam's resignation, demonstrators have five demands: complete withdrawal of the extradition bill; a halt to descriptions of the protests as "rioting"; a waiver of charges against those arrested; an independent inquiry; and resumption of political reform.

On Sunday, protesters spilled out of Victoria Park, the designated rally area, towards the city's financial centre, chanting for Ms Lam to step down.

Police estimated the size of the crowd in Victoria Park at 128,000 at its peak, although that excluded the masses of umbrella-carrying demonstrators who packed the streets.

The Hong Kong government said in a statement it was important to restore social order as soon as possible and that it would begin talks with the public and "rebuild social harmony when everything has calmed down".

Chinese media attributed the change in the character of the protest to the presence of Chinese paramilitary forces, which have been conducting exercises in Shenzhen, just across the border.

The Chinese Communist Party's official 'People's Daily' newspaper warned again in an editorial that hostile foreign influences were inciting the protest movement. Beijing has accused some countries, including the United States, of fomenting unrest.

Further demonstrations are planned in coming weeks, including protests planned by Christians and even an accountants' group.

Police have come under criticism for using increasingly aggressive tactics to break up demonstrations, but there was a minimal police presence on Sunday and no arrests. More than 700 people have been arrested since June.

The central Chinese government has sought to deepen integration between the mainland and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and nearby Macau, a former Portuguese-run enclave which returned to China in 1999.

China has also put strong pressure on big companies, especially Cathay Pacific Airways. Chief executive Rupert Hogg quit last week after Beijing targeted the airline over staff involvement in the protests.

Hogg's sudden departure was announced by Chinese state television and was seen as a signal to other multinationals, such as HSBC and Jardine Matheson, to support Beijing.

Cathay also fired two pilots for taking part in the protests.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump has warned China that a violent crackdown in Hong Kong would imperil any trade deal with the US, saying he wants to see a "humanitarian" solution to the unrest.

The US president hinted he would like to see Beijing resolve the continuing protests in the city state before any trade deal is struck.

The pro-democracy movement has rocked Hong Kong, the region's major financial hub, with massive demonstrations over the past three months.

"I would like to see Hong Kong worked out in a very humanitarian fashion," Mr Trump told reporters. "I think it would be very good for the trade deal."

Larry Kudlow, Mr Trump's chief economic adviser, said trade deputies from the US and China would speak within 10 days in the hope of bringing negotiations around to ending the current trade war.

However, China has shown little sign of easing its position on the protests in Hong Kong, which it has denounced as "terrorist-like" actions.

Irish Independent

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