Thousands of pro-democracy protesters rallied in Hong Kong on Sunday, returning to the streets for the first time since police broke up mass demonstrations last year after a 79-day occupation of the center of the former British colony.
The turnout was a fraction of last autumn’s "Occupy Central" movement, but organizers said the smaller scale of the rally did not indicate that Hong Kong citizens had accepted a plan imposed by China’s parliament that would limit voting choices in elections for the city’s top official.
Organizers had projected a turnout of 50,000 people, but said only 13,000 joined the peaceful rally, which proceeded without police interference or clashes. Police said the crowds reached 8,800 at its peak on Sunday, and witnesses said it had dwindled to 100 by evening.
"We should not regard the number of protesters this time as an indication that Hong Kong people will accept the limited election package,” Daisy Chan, spokeswoman for the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized the rally, told the crowd.
She said the turnout should not be used as a basis by Hong Kong chief executive Chun-ying Leung for pushing through with Beijing's "fake democracy plan" for the territory.
An Aug. 31 decision by China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), decreed that all 5 million of Hong Kong's voters will cast ballots in the 2017 poll, but may only choose between two or three candidates vetted by a Beijing-backed election committee.
That decree sparked the Occupy Central movement, which drew hundreds of thousands of people to the heart of Hong Kong, where many thousands camped on major roadways for more than two months beginning on Sept. 28.
Occupy Central also became known as the "Umbrella Movement" after protesters used umbrellas to ward off tear gas and pepper spray, tried to put pressure on Beijing to allow the public nomination of candidates in the 2017 elections for the city's leader.
Many protesters Sunday again brought yellow umbrellas, and carried banners saying "We want genuine democracy" and "We want to choose our own government."
They were joined by student leaders Joshua Wong, Alex Chou and others who spearheaded the major demonstrations last year. Wong and three other student leaders were questioned by police in mid-January but released without charges.
"We don't want the three hand-picked candidates by the Central Government. We, as Hongkongers, want to make our own choices,” said a woman who gave only her last name, Ho, as she marched with her husband.
Chan Yanxia, a teacher with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said she did not particuipate in the protest Sunday but her "support for true democracy for Hong Kong will never change."
"I did not go, but I think the number is not the most critical element," she said. "Fewer demonstrators don’t mean the people's determination to fight for universal suffrage has diminished. Not getting on the street does not mean not supporting or not fighting (for) democracy."
Benny Tai, one of the founders of last year’s Occupy Central movement said support for universal suffrage remained far stronger than Sunday’s showing on the streets.
"The Occupy movement lasted so long and all of civil society needs time to rest,” he told the rally.
“There were over a million people involved in the Occupy Movement and they are still here,” said Tai. “The question is: Is this the right moment to use this method to fight for universal suffrage?"
Reported by RFA’s Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated by Shiny Li and Ping Chen. Written in English by Paul Eckert.