Sunday 1 July 2017
Twenty years after Britain returned its colony, China’s president provokes pro-democracy anger
A performance artist makes her mark about Chinese rule on the streets of Hong Kong yesterday. Photograph: Alex Hofford/EPA
Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters delivered a rebuke to President Xi Jinping after the Chinese leader warned that Hong Kong must not become a launchpad for challenges to Beijing’s authority.
Organisers said 60,000 people joined the two-mile march – held every year since 1997 – blaming thunderstorms for falling short of the goal of 100,000 demonstrators. Police reportedly put the turnout at 14,500.
On 1 July 1997, Britain handed Hong Kong back to China after more than 150 years of colonial rule. The date is now marked with a march, one of the larger demonstrations in the territory’s packed protest calendar, and the city remains the only place on Chinese soil where mass demonstrations are permitted. This year’s rally coincided with the first visit by the Chinese president and creeping pessimism over Beijing’s increasingly hardline stance towards the territory.
“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 a red line and is absolutely impermissible,” Xi said as he ended his trip. He was hundreds of miles away when the protest march began.
“Xi doesn’t understand Hong Kong people. The Communist party’s solution to the world’s problems is money, because that is all they have,” said Martin Lee, a veteran activist and former legislator. “The Communists don’t have core values and principles to stand on, but we cherish our freedoms, civil rights and the rule of law.”
Lee, 79, is known as the “father of democracy” to supporters and a “traitor” or, worse, a “running dog of the colonialists”, in Communist party circles.
“We are walking a very difficult path, the road of democracy, and so long as we continue to walk we are bound to be successful,” he said at the end of the rally. “Even if our country will be the last in the entire world to reach that goal, we will still get there.”
Thousands of protesters held up signs demanding that China free Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Nobel peace laureate who was recently diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and transferred from prison to hospital. Liu and his wife hope to go to the US for medical treatment, but their applications to travel have been rebuffed by Chinese authorities.
Others demanded that Hong Kong’s outgoing chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, be locked up over corruption allegations, and many slogans were simply words of encouragement for a movement that has seen little progress on democracy: “Never back down”, “Fight for Hong Kong,” and, more poetically, “Being born in uncertain times carries certain responsibilities”.
“We’re not attacking China; we’re just defending our rights and our freedoms,” said Martyn Chai, 17, a protester and secondary school student. “All we’re asking for is what was promised: to have a high degree of autonomy and govern ourselves, but the Chinese government only wants to control Hong Kong. We’ve been lied to for the past 20 years since the handover.”
Hong Kong people are different from mainland Chinese, with a unique way of life and distinct culture, Chai said, adding he felt no connection to mainland China. Beijing’s rejection of open and free elections still enrages him nearly three years after the decision.
In the run-up to the handover anniversary, China’s government made plain it would do as it pleases as far as Hong Kong is concerned. The day before the anniversary, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the 1984 Sino-British treaty that secured Britain’s departure from Hong Kong by guaranteeing that the former territory’s way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years – now had no “binding force”.
A feeling of hopelessness has begun to set in among Hong Kongers who feel powerless in the face of the Chinese government. “Fewer people are coming to protest in the past few years because nothing has changed,” said Esther Lau, a student. “We scream and shout but things are the same, so people think it’s pointless. But we have to show the government we are unhappy with their actions; our discontent must be heard.”
Lau is an experienced demonstrator, having volunteered when she was 14 during an 11-week sit-in, dubbed the “umbrella revolution”, on a road outside Hong Kong’s main government offices, the largest protests since the city was handed back to China. Every few years there seems to be a new political crisis that becomes the focus of the march.
In its early years, several thousand demonstrators called for democracy in mainland China, and it exploded into half a million people opposing proposed anti-subversion legislation in 2003. More recently the rallying cry has been for direct elections for Hong Kong’s leader. For Lam Kin-man, 77, the march has become an annual ritual with a single focus for over a decade. “Every year I march, and I will keep marching until I can no longer walk,” the retired teacher said. “I will never see true democracy in my lifetime, but I hope maybe the next generation will be more lucky.” – The Guardian
Date Published: Saturday 1 July 2017 | 20.28 BST