(Bloomberg) — Hong Kong protesters turned out in force through heavy rain to march for an 11th straight weekend, as more moderate leaders sought to reset the pro-democracy movement after violent scenes at the airport last week threatened to sap support among the broader public.
The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized the protest, said more than 1.7 million people turned out, making it one of the largest since demonstrations began on June 9. A sea of umbrellas filled Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, with the police estimating a crowd of 128,000 at the height of the gathering, before the group streamed out and marched toward Central, shutting down major boulevards.
The protesters stayed largely peaceful, contrasting with the increased violence of the past few weekends that saw mob attacks, brick-throwing, tear gas and rubber bullets. Late Sunday evening, the government said protesters shot hard objects at the Central Government Complex with slingshots and aimed laser beams at police officers.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump repeated his suggestion that Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping should hold personal talks with protest leaders and ensure a “humanitarian” resolution to the political crisis. Trump told reporters Sunday it would be “much harder” for him to sign any trade deal with China if Xi “did something violent” in the former British colony.
Tensions peaked during a mass sit-in that shut down the international airport on Aug. 12-13, when demonstrators beat and detained two mainland Chinese men they suspected of infiltrating the movement. The escalating violence — and growing saber rattling about potential intervention by Beijing — led organizers to adopt a less confrontational approach in recent days.
“There’s a consensus that everyone will be restrained,” Wong Yik-mo, vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, said in an interview at the beginning of the event. “When we make mistakes, we do admit it. We apologize. We promise to do better next time, which is exactly contrary to our government.”
Read More: Why Hong Kong’s Still Protesting and Where It May Go
The Hang Seng Index added 1.6% Monday, heading for a fourth day of gains. The gauge was the worst-performing major index globally over the past month, making local stocks to cheap to ignore even if the protests were expected drag on.
What initially started as a fight against a bill that would’ve allowed extraditions to China has morphed into a broader battle to secure democratic freedoms promised to Hong Kong for 50 years after Britain handed over the territory in 1997. So far China has firmly supported the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, and refused to agree to more demands after the bill was shelved in June.
Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chan warned Sunday of an “economic typhoon” due to the unrest and the U.S.-China trade war. The financial hub last week slashed its 2019 growth forecast to as little as zero, down from a previous range of 2% to 3%, prompting the government to unveil a $2.4 billion spending package.
“Destruction is easy and construction is difficult,” Hong Kong Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung said separately in a blog post on Sunday. The situation must “return to reason” before the government takes steps to meet the protesters’ goal of securing a better future, he said.
China has taken a harder stance. On Saturday You Wenze, spokesman for China’s National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, called for all protesters who broke the law to be punished. You’s committee is a panel of China’s legislature that crafted the Basic Law of Hong Kong — its mini-constitution.
Other pro-establishment figures attempted to dial back the rhetoric. Former Justice Secretary Elsie Leung told a local radio program she thought some protest actions were “close to subversion,” but that the movement didn’t yet pose the direct threat to Beijing’s authority necessary to justify military intervention.
A pro-China rally later on Saturday in the city center attracted 108,000 people, according to police. Organizers put the crowd size at 476,000.
As the rains came down on Sunday, pro-democracy protesters chanted “Free Hong Kong,” “Democracy Now,” and “Fight for Freedom.” One leader also chanted “No Riot,” signaling a desire to counter China’s narrative that the protesters are violent radicals influenced by the U.S.
Many of the protesters on Sunday expressed a mixture of determination and hopelessness. They viewed this as one of the last chances for Hong Kong to secure the ability to vote in their own leaders and protect other democratic values squeezed since Chinese President Xi Jinping took control of the Communist Party.
“The most important thing now is to get democracy,” said Tan Shu Huay, 73, a retiree. “As long as we’re not at the 50-year mark of one country, two systems, Hong Kongers are racing against time to fight for and preserve our freedoms even after 2047.”
Still, many of the protesters felt dejected. Sam Lam, a 23-year-old university student, called it a “hopeless movement” while walking through the rain, a sentiment shared by others.
“Unless Chinese officials change their minds, Hong Kong people can’t be successful,” said Philip Chan, a 58-year-old chief operating officer at KDB Asia, who has attended every legal protest. Still, he said, “I will keep continuing, unless I die.”
–With assistance from Stanley James.
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