Thousands March in Anger on Hong Kong Anniversary as China Warns 'No Challenges'

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Protesters in Hong Kong express a range of grievances as the former British colony marks 20 years under Chinese rule, July 1, 2017.
Protesters in Hong Kong express a range of grievances as the former British colony marks 20 years under Chinese rule, July 1, 2017.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the city's handover to China on Saturday, calling for fully democratic elections and for the immediate release of terminally ill political prisoner Liu Xiaobo.

Calling on the Beijing-backed administration of newly inaugurated chief executive Carrie Lam to "delay no more" in moving towards universal suffrage and public nominations, some 60,000 marchers took umbrellas, banners and performance art to show their anger over the erosion of traditional rights and freedoms in the city during the past two decades of Chinese rule.

March organizer Au Nok-hin called on people to stand up for Hong Kong's rights and freedoms under the terms of the handover treaty, which China dismissed on Friday as "a historical document ... with no practical application," and which the U.K. said is still valid.

"Our theme is about the betrayal of one country, two systems," Au said, in a reference to promises that Beijing would stay out of Hong Kong's affairs and concern itself only with issues of foreign relations and security.

He called on Beijing to re-balance its Hong Kong policies at the forthcoming 19th Party Congress later this year.

"We are calling on them to ... pay attention to the voices of Hong Kong people when formulating their policies, not just to focus on the 'one country' part," Au said.

Visiting President Xi Jinping warned that Hong Kong should give up any bid to "challenge the central government," however, and crack down on moves towards "Hong Kong independence".

"Any attempt to endanger China's sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government ... or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible," Xi said.

He also called for better education for Hong Kong's children, apparently endorsing previous attempts to introduce "patriotic education" in the city that sparked mass protests in 2012.

"Education on national history and culture needs to be strengthened," Xi said.

Out on the streets, marchers carried punch-bags and toilets bearing the faces of Hong Kong's leaders, as well as a cardboard cutout of visiting President Xi Jinping holding a yellow umbrella in a reference to the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement for universal suffrage.

Scuffles with pro-Beijing groups

A small group waved pro-independence and colonial-era Hong Kong flags, gathering a large crowd of journalists eager to depict opposition to Chinese rule.

But the march, which saw banners with the slogans "Democracy Delay No More!" "China, Get Out of Hong Kong!" and "Independence for Hong Kong!" jostling with portraits of Nobel peace laureate Liu, was marred by scuffles with pro-Beijing groups and allegations of police violence.

Avery Ng, who heads the opposition League of Social Democrats, accused a police officer of attacking him while he was handcuffed, pulling his hair, kicking his genitals and screaming abusive language at him.

Ng, who was never arrested, later displayed bruises to journalists, while a second protester showed similar injuries he said were inflicted by police.

Participants said the anniversary also comes amid widespread public anger at Hong Kong's own government, which has frequently been accused of caving in too easily to Beijing's interference in the city in recent years.

"The people of Hong Kong are very angry on this July 1 march, marking the 20th anniversary of the handover," lawmaker Lau Siu-lai told RFA.

"We have suffered five legal interpretations that have rocked our judicial system, and we no longer have any confidence in one country, two systems."

China's National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee has recently intervened to rule out public nomination of candidates in a debate over electoral reform and to oust two pro-independence lawmakers who changed the wording of their oaths of allegiance, prompting protests by lawyers fearing for the city's judicial independence.

"We want to take back Hong Kong, defend our independent judiciary and the rule of law, as well as the foundations of our economic success,"

Lau said. "That includes narrowing the gap between rich and poor, and bringing back the prosperity of our working class."

One country, two systems has failed

And a high school student surnamed Lam told RFA at the march that he took part because he wants young people's voices to be heard.

"We need to show our dissatisfaction with the Chinese government and the government of Hong Kong, and we want them to understand our point of view better," he said.

Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said Saturday's march was also full of anger over the ruling Chinese Communist Party's treatment of Liu Xiaobo, a peaceful advocate of constitutional reform who was recently granted medical parole only when his liver cancer had reached a terminal stage.

"My own aim in taking part in today's demonstration is to protest the fact that Liu's life has been put in danger by the delays until his liver cancer was in its later stages, and all because he is a prisoner of conscience who was jailed for speaking out," Lui said.

"The Chinese government has treated him inhumanely, and persecuted his wife and those around him in all manner of illegal ways," he said.

Organizers estimated that around 60,000 people turned out on Saturday, compared with some 110,000 last year, but police, who sealed off a number of road intersections to prevent new protesters from joining the march along its route, said they had counted just 14,500.

Veteran Democracy Party founder Martin Lee told Hong Kong not to give up its fight for democracy: "This is going to be a long, drawn out battle which will not be won easily," Lee said. "The more repressive the Community Party is, the more we must stand up together."

And Cantopop stars Denise Ho and Anthony Wong, who were prominent in the 2014 Occupy Central movement, also marched.

A government spokesman said the government understands people's desire for universal suffrage, but added the issue is "extremely controversial."

Police said they had arrested three men on suspicion of assault after pro-democracy protesters were charged by a group of pro-Beijing on Saturday morning, but they also forcibly removed lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung and Joshua Wong from the scene, although they weren't arrested.

Wong told government broadcaster RTHK that the pro-Beijing protesters were from criminal gangs loyal to the Communist Party.

"Police just had the intention to collaborate with those patriotic triads," Wong was quoted as saying. "They just allowed them to physically assault us and let us be hurt."

"It’s totally a failure of one country, two systems ... if our peaceful demonstration, the right to assembly is eroded by those triads," he said, saying he should never have been handcuffed.

Demosisto said in a brief statement via Twitter: "We condemn the brief arrest earlier today of [Joshua Wong] and others after a pro-Beijing mob staged a sudden, guerrilla attack."

Around 10 Demosisto activists said they were threatened in a separate incident by a policeman who said he would use his gun if they didn't stop "causing an obstruction" by handing out leaflets to passers-by.

An online video posted by the party on its Twitter account appeared to support their claim.

Across the internal immigration border in mainland China, one activist said he had been issued with a travel ban after trying to board a flight to Hong Kong to take part in the protests.

Jiang Zucheng, an evictee from the southwestern city of Chongqing, said he had wanted to use the march as a way of protesting during Xi's visit to Hong Kong.

"All my land has been taken away, and my home was demolished," Jiang said. "All I wanted was to shout out my grievances in front of President Xi, if I ran into him."

Reported by Lau Siu-fung and Goh Fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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