Defiance and hope in Hong Kong as police cede streets

Ross ADKIN
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Messages left by protesters are posted on what they call "the Lennon Wall"

Messages left by protesters are posted on what they call "the Lennon Wall" (AFP Photo/Anthony WALLACE)

Hong Kong (AFP) - In the thoroughfare where days ago protesters were fighting running battles, the police are nowhere to be seen, while black-clad protesters mill about on the neon-lit shoreline, enjoying the evening breeze after hours of marching through tropical heat to protest a reviled extradition law.

"Maybe they've gone home," one onlooker said, looking down from a walkway onto a sea of protesters still keeping vigil against a Beijing-backed law they fear will entangle people in China's notoriously opaque and politicised courts and damage Hong Kong's reputation as a safe business hub.

About two million marched in the finance hub on Sunday, organisers said, piling pressure on the city's embattled pro-Beijing leader who apologised for causing "conflict" but refused to step down.

Squeezed in between the skyscrapers but unopposed and unharried, the crowd sang songs, chanted, and played back footage from the day's march on their phones.

The sea parted sporadically to allow ambulances and busses to pass, accompanied by thunderous applause.

Towards the seafront, four young protesters sat on the tarmac of a main thoroughfare, blaring an anthem from the musical "Les Miserables" that has long been a rallying cry for the city's democracy movement.

The extradition furore is just the latest chapter in what many see as a battle for the soul of Hong Kong.

For the last decade the city has been convulsed by political turbulence between pro-Beijing authorities and opponents who fear an increasingly assertive China is stamping on the city's unique freedoms and culture enjoyed since the handover in 1997.

Many of those who marched said they had been spurred on after a man died late Saturday when he fell from a building where he had been holding an hours-long anti-extradition protest.

- Flowers, incense and cigarettes -

He had unfurled a banner on scaffolding attached to an upscale mall, but fell when rescuers tried to haul him in. Police said they suspected the 35-year-old man was suicidal.

Thousands paid their respects Sunday, waiting under the sun for hours to offer flowers, incense and cigarettes at a makeshift shrine before joining the demonstration that paralysed the city centre.

As evening fell, similar wreaths of white flowers dotted the government lawn as streams of people began heading for home.

Hundreds of mostly young protesters sat out listening to speeches and watching films, in scenes more reminiscent of campus life at the leafy universities that have produced many of those coordinating the protests.

A mosaic of A4 sheets bearing handwritten messages of hope, defiance and solidarity in Chinese and English covered the paving stones outside the legislature building. A young man with a megaphone called on those returning home to contribute, while others handed out paper and pens and taped the offerings to the ground.

One man who gave his name as Yankee laid down a simple design of a heart shape alongside the letters "HK".

"I'm not usually the person to stand up and speak but today I had to come out," he said. "And now, what I'm feeling comes from in here," he said, pointing to his chest.

"Of course I am proud of this city."