Hundreds of thousands took to Hong Kong streets on Sunday, defying military threats from Beijing and torrential rain in efforts to reset the tone of a political movement that has embroiled the city all summer.
Demonstrators, including infants and the elderly, started filtering in early afternoon to a massive park, where police had approved a public gathering.
But the crowds were so big that they spilled out into side streets, eventually marching peacefully through several neighbourhoods. Some chanted slogans like “Hong Kong people, add oil!” while others waved signs that read, “Our spirit will never die!”
Organisers estimated 1.7m protesters turned out, with police putting the number at just 128,000.
As a downpour suddenly started, a pizza parlour began handing out free slices, and taped signs to the window: “Cheer Up, Hong Kong.” Nearby a bakery’s shelves were wiped clean as some protesters seeking brief refuge from the rain grabbed snacks.
Hong Kong is embroiled in its worst political crisis since the former British colony was returned to Beijing rule in 1997. Protesters first took to the streets against a now-suspended extradition bill that would have sent people to face trial in mainland China, where Communist Party control of the courts contributes to a 99.9 per cent conviction rate.
Still, people stayed in the streets, demanding the government formally withdraw the bill to prevent lawmakers from quickly tabling and passing the legislation in the future. Their calls have also expanded to include broader reforms, such as direct leadership elections.
But a five-day occupation of the airport earlier this week briefly turned ugly and threatened to finally splinter public opinion against the political movement which had enjoyed broad support.
On Tuesday, protesters swarmed two men suspected of being undercover spies, and one officer pulled a gun as he fell to the floor after being beaten by protesters with his own baton. Hundreds of flights were also cancelled, leaving thousands stranded.
And so demonstrators put out an apology, and calls were issued all week for upcoming rallies to stay peaceful, especially as concerns grew that Beijing might make good on its hints that it was ready to intervene militarily.
“Hong Kong people can be totally peaceful,” said Jimmy Sham, a representative with the Civil Human Rights Front, the pro-democracy group that organised Sunday’s gathering, at the podium.
As of Sunday evening, it appeared protesters had stuck to their resolve to have a big showing, with no run-ins with police, and bring some positivity back.
Police in full riot gear patrolled in teams around China’s liaison office in Hong Kong, checking the IDs of passersby. Three young men, all 18, were stopped and cornered by about a dozen officers for about 20 minutes while they examined their IDs. An officer told one man that they could discuss further at the station, but he resisted going inside.
One woman, 57, who refused to give a name, said she was participating in the protests for the first time to show the world that such mob scenes were a one-off exception for a group that had been driven to the brink.
“Tuesday night really shook me up; I think it really shook everyone up,” she said, holding a sign that read, “Free HK Hugs.” “I think everyone knows, ‘that’s not us’ on television; it’s not Hong Kong, and this is why people are out here.”
“We don’t know what the future will be like, but if we stop protesting, that means we accept the current situation and show the government we are scared of them,” said Shirley Lau, 39, a housewife who brought her two children with her. “As parents, we need to step out and teach our kids and the next generation what’s right and what’s wrong.”
“Hong Kong people have so much anger that they are trying to express,” said Jessica Chan, 40, an office clerk who has participated in protests all summer. “The government still hasn’t fulfilled our five demands.”
Both protesters and residents have become increasingly upset with police as rallies disintegrate into near-daily violent standoffs with officers shooting tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.
But despite all the chaos, public opinion has yet to turn against the most aggressive protesters – largely high school and university students – instead galvanising more supporters.
“We will never discriminate those protesters on the frontline who use force, we will continue to support them,” said Eunice Chan, 28.
Some people say they “thought the younger generation would rather stay home during summer break and play computer games, but no, they have so much passion and they decided to come out,” said Ms Lau.
Even Beijing’s increasing battle cries for Hong Kong to simmer down don’t seem to bother anyone. Official state media have released ominous videos of paramilitary anti-riot drills going on all week in Shenzhen, a neighbouring Chinese city.
“I don’t think the PLA will come to Hong Kong,” said Rick Chan, 27, an engineer. “The Chinese government is just trying to show its power. We are fighting for freedom in Hong Kong. The police and the government are trying to scare people away, but many of us aren’t afraid.”