Hong Kong saw its first weekend without tear gas in weeks, even as anti-government protesters brought streets to a standstill on Sunday as hundreds of thousands of people marched despite police objection.
Protesters marched from Victoria Park, where a rally had been called by pan-democratic group Civil Human Rights Front, for 6 km (3.7 miles) to Sheung Wan district, overflowing from several major roads into side streets.
The march appeared to be one of the largest since demonstrations began on 9 June, in a sign that much of Hong Kong is unwilling to stand down even after protests edge close to three months with little government response.
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Civil Human Rights Front, a broad coalition of pro-democracy groups, claimed more than 1.7 million had attended the demonstration but figures were difficult to calculate as protesters moved in two directions and often into side streets on an unsanctioned march.
Hong Kong police said 128,000 people attended the rally at its peak on Sunday.
Civil Human Rights Front said the march was as much against a legislative bill that would have allowed for residents to stand trial in mainland China – which was suspended but not permanently shelved in June – as it was against “Chinese-style repression” by police.
“We want to gather the most Hong Kongers, and, using peaceful, rational, and nonviolent means, unite in spirit and action to express our indignation against police brutality, as well as display Hong Kongers’ firm resolve,” coalition convener Wong Yik Mo said in a statement.
By 2.30 pm on Sunday, half an hour before the rally was due to begin, it was clear that it would be the largest in weeks as tens of thousands struggled to enter the park and public transit networks were overloaded with black-clad protesters.
Scores of people remained chanting on the streets eight hours later, shining laser pointers on the central government headquarters and chanting slogans.
“We want to show the government and the rest of the world we can [protest] peacefully. We aren’t always into violent means of protesting. We hope the government can listen to us and hear our voice and understand that what we want is [peace],” said Kevin Poon, a protester and university employee, while marching through a major shopping district.
“To some extent it’s also a protest against the current system that we have where it’s undemocratic and the government is unaccountable to its people,” he said.
The march was reminiscent of two peaceful rallies called by Civil Human Rights Front in June that drew 1 and 2 million people, according to organiser estimates, although on Sunday protesters braved heavy rain instead of heat and humidity.
It was attended, crucially, by thousands of ordinary residents as opposed to more radical student and youth protesters who have headlined recent demonstrations, including an occupation of Hong Kong International Airport last week.
Sunday showed as well that the public was still united against the government and leader Carrie Lam, who sparked protests in early June when she attempted to push the extradition bill through the legislature.
Many residents feared the bill would mean the end of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy, promised under the “one country, two systems” arrangement with China until 2047. As a former British colony, Hong Kong has many rights and freedoms not found in mainland China but protesters have said they are now under attack.
While Ms Lam has told protesters she would not pursue the bill further after mass demonstrations at the beginning of the summer, many do not believe her and have become increasingly angry with escalating police violence.
Chants on Sunday included calls for the “five demands” of protesters which have remained much the same since June, such as for Ms Lam to step down and the government to initiative an investigation into police violence.
Hong Kong police have come under international criticism for their excessive use of tear gas and rubber bullets in situations where they were not under threat from protesters, sometimes firing as well on unprotected bystanders and journalists.
“As the movement grows bigger and bigger, the aim of it changes along with it and we have our five basic goals we want to achieve. Police brutality is definitely one of the most significant issues we want to focus on,” said protester Ashrit Gurung, who carried a sign saying “an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.”
In a statement on Sunday, the Hong Kong government, however, continued to maintain its line that police violence has been largely a response to protester actions.
The government said that “violent protester repeatedly charged police cordon lines, deliberately blocked roads, vandalised public facilities, set fire in various locations, attacked police officers with offensive weapons, and threw bricks and petrol bombs” over 75 times in the past 11 weeks, injuring 180 officers.
Police said they had only responded when they were “left with no choice.”