HONG KONG — As thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets on Saturday, Chinese president Xi Jinping ended his first visit to this former British colony with a stern warning that the communist government will not tolerate any change to its authority here.
“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 during ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the handover of this lively city that has seen its freedoms ebb under Beijing’s rule.
Xi praised Hong Kong’s success as a financial hub and a cosmopolitan center, calling it a “vibrant metropolis” and a “plural society.” He acknowledged that “there are different views and even major differences on some specific issues,” but cautioned that “making everything political or deliberately creating differences and provoking confrontation will not resolve the problems.”
Police estimated 14,500 people attended the pro-democracy march — a tradition since 2003 on the July 1 handover anniversary date. The figure is the lowest since the march began. Organizers, meanwhile, put the crowd number at 60,000 but acknowledged that the event was smaller than it had been in previous years.
William Tam, 60, a marcher, said he felt many in the younger generation have become disillusioned with protesting after the student-led 2014 Umbrella Movement shut down parts of the city for 79 days but failed to achieve any real concessions.
“This year the university students didn’t come,” said Tam. “They think it’s useless to shout slogans. But I’m still here to show my support and say we’re not satisfied with the government.”
A heightened security presence during Xi’s visit may also have dampened participation in addition to weather conditions of heavy rain and intense heat.
Earlier in the morning, several protesters, including Joshua Wong, the 20-year-old face of the Umbrella Movement and politician and activist Leung Kwok-hung, known as “Long Hair,” were taken away by police after a scuffle with pro-Beijing counter-protesters.
While some were carried off in handcuffs, they were not officially arrested by police and were later released. Protester Avery Ng, chairman of the League of Social Democrats, said he was physically assaulted by a police officer after being pulled into a vehicle.
Many of the same activists had been arrested Wednesday night after a protest on the eve of the Chinese president’s arrival. Wong spent more than 33 hours in detention.
“It was very unnecessary to detain them for that long,” said Duncan Ho, a member of the Progressive Lawyers Group. Ho said police have been cracking down on lawful protests during Xi’s visit more swiftly than ever before.
“It’s definitely worrying,” he said. “Our right to march and right to demonstrate should be guaranteed. Police have a positive duty to assist in the demonstrations. We hope it’s not a precedent.”
Xi’s visit was clearly a show of strength, with barricades cordoning off city streets and a huge police presence. On Friday morning, the Chinese president viewed a military parade of more than 3,100 troops from the People’s Liberation Army stationed at a garrison near Hong Kong’s border with China. It was the largest such review since the handover in 1997.
Saturday’s protest march went off without incident, with occasional shouting matches between small groups of pro-Beijing demonstrators appearing along the route.
Protesters carried banners with slogans saying “Down with the communists” and “Tyranny cannot overcome justice.” Many called for universal suffrage – the same issue that spurred the Umbrella Movement of 2014.
Along the march route, Hong Kong residents also set up booths and handed out flyers about other issues that have caused frustration in the city, such as high housing costs, workers’ rights and the need for education changes.
It was a vigorous display of freedom of speech that would never be permitted in mainland China. But many in Hong Kong fear that the differences are narrowing and that Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” approach, in which China guaranteed Hong Kong would maintain its open economic and political freedoms, is under increasing threat.
As evening fell, a fireworks show celebrating the handover anniversary lit up Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour in the pouring rain.
“We just want to have a real democracy,” said Warren Tam, 26, a district developer for the liberal Civic Party. “We know it is going to take a long time. But we are young and want to say to China that time is on our side.”
Article originally appeared in USA Today on 1 July 2017