An estimated 1.7 million people took to the streets of Hong Kong in a peaceful rally on Sunday, Aug. 18.
Largest demonstration since July 1
This was the biggest rally since the July 1 march, which organisers estimated almost two million people attended.
It also caps the 11th consecutive weekend of protests in Hong Kong.
More significantly, this particular march marks the first weekend with no tear gas fired by the riot police, and no physical clashes between them and the protesters.
Police presence was light as well, even though people kept pouring into Victoria Park, where the rally was held.
Police gave a lower turnout
However, the police estimate was much smaller, putting the turnout at about 128,000 at the peak of the rally in Victoria Park.
But these numbers only included the areas closest to Victoria Park, between Causeway Bay to Fortress Hill.
In fact, the organiser, Civil Human Rights Front, said it believes the actual turnout was much larger than 1.7 million.
The Front's convenor, Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, told South China Morning Post that they were unable to take into account the large numbers of people from Causeway Bay to Central.While protesters had planned a march on Sunday, police had banned it due to safety concerns, confining it to a rally at Victoria Park instead.
On the day itself, the park was flooded with protesters.
Many started streaming in from the afternoon, while many more were waiting to get in.
Protesters overflowed from the park and filled up the streets, while others started marching towards Central.
Incredible time-lapse video of yesterday's protest - and rainstorm. If anybody knows how to properly credit this, please post as reply. pic.twitter.com/othb8l5wxx— Sheridan Prasso (@SheridanAsia) August 19, 2019
SCMP reported that while such a march would be considered "illegal" due to the earlier ban, the police accepted the organisers' decision to allow people to move away from the park.
First peaceful march in weeks marks return to initial protest style
Sunday's event was also the first peaceful demonstration in weeks.
It was preceded by intense rounds of online discussions and debate among protesters on the future of the movement, especially since the sit-in at the Hong Kong airport on Aug. 13 ended in chaos and violence.
Some had wanted to resume the previous style of peaceful rallying, and if the scenes from Sunday's march are anything to go by, the protesters had pretty much reached a consensus on how they want to go about with future protests.
Some even brought their toddlers and children along, in the firm belief that the rally would remain peaceful.
Despite torrential rain, marchers stayed on the streets.
They used their umbrellas this time round as shields protecting them from weather elements, rather than the tear gas fired by the police.
Later in the night, they pointed laser beams at government headquarters in Wan Chai, shouting insults and hurling objects at the police, according to SCMP.
Nevertheless, the protest ended peacefully, with no physical clashes between the police and protesters.
#LIVE: Unlike the normal days when some #antiELAB protesters are reluctant to leave, some tho call on others to go home this time. They’ve formed a human chain to push people down a bridge on the Harcourt Rd.— Ezra Cheung (@ezracheungtoto) August 18, 2019
“we win if we leave,” some chant using a loudspeaker. #ExtraditionLaw pic.twitter.com/jAk8SQn0Ob
First government response with no condemnation
On the same night, Hong Kong government issued an response to the rally, saying that the "public meeting was generally peaceful", although protesters had occupied the roads, which "seriously affected traffic and caused much inconvenience".
This is the first government response in weeks without the words "condemn", "violence" or "radical".
The government spokesperson also emphasised the restoration of social order, saying that "sincere dialogue" will only begin "when everything has calmed down".
Here is the complete government statement:
"In response to the public meeting held in Victoria Park today (August 18), a Government spokesman said that though the public meeting was generally peaceful, the participants occupied a number of thoroughfares on Hong Kong Island, seriously affecting traffic and causing much inconvenience to the community. The Transport Department and the Police have actively co-ordinated with concerned parties to minimise the impact.
The spokesman reiterated that it was most important to restore social order as soon as possible. The Government will begin sincere dialogue with the public, mend social rifts and rebuild social harmony when everything has calmed down."
On the other hand, the Front's convenor, Sham, said that Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam must now respond to the protesters' five demands, as Sunday's peaceful demonstration was exactly what she has asked for.
"She must respond to the five demands made by protesters so as to show Hongkongers’ peaceful and rational expression can be heard, accepted and met,", SCMP reported Sham as saying.
"If she continues to turn a deaf ear, she will be instigating more radical struggles.", he added.
Peaceful rally comes after worst scenes of violence
Over the last two months, there has been an escalation of violence by both protesters and police.
The focus of the movement has shifted from rallying against the proposed extradition bill, which has since been announced "dead", to anger at the Hong Kong government for refusing to do anything apart from condemning the protesters and endorsing the police.
Front-line protesters hurled bricks, Molotov cocktails and other objects at the police and police stations, whereas the police responded with more tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds.
On Aug. 11, a protester's eye was allegedly ruptured by a bean bag round, while groups of protesters were arrested by police during their undercover operation where they infiltrated them after disguising themselves as protesters.
The bloody aftermath prompted protesters to occupy the airport for three consecutive days, subsequently paralysing it.
Hundreds of flights were cancelled, leaving visitors stranded at the airport.
Two mainland Chinese men were tied up and assaulted by protesters at the airport on Aug. 13.
The two men were suspected to be undercover police agents from mainland China.
These two incidents have sparked widespread criticisms, and led to a backlash against the protesters, prompting them to apologise for their actions in a bid to limit the damage done to the movement.
Top image via Apple Daily/Facebook
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