Tens of thousands rally as Hongkongers take anti-extradition protest to streets of Kowloon

A line of protesters stretches out near the site of Hong Kong’s high-speed rail terminus with mainland China. Hong Kong island looms in the background. Photo by Stuart White/Coconuts Hong Kong
A line of protesters stretches out near the site of Hong Kong’s high-speed rail terminus with mainland China. Hong Kong island looms in the background. Photo by Stuart White/Coconuts Hong Kong

Thousands of anti-government protesters rallied outside a controversial train station linking the territory to the Chinese mainland today, the latest mass show of anger as activists try to keep pressure on the city’s pro-Beijing leaders.

The rally, which organizers at the rally estimated drew more than 200,000 marchers, was the first major large-scale protest since last Monday’s unprecedented storming of parliament by largely young, masked protesters — which plunged the international financial hub further into crisis.

Hong Kong has been rocked by a month of huge marches as well as a series of separate violent confrontations with police, sparked by a law that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.

The bill has since been postponed in response to the intense backlash but that has done little to quell public anger, which has evolved into a wider movement calling for democratic reforms and a halt to sliding freedoms in the semi-autonomous city.

On Sunday, thousands snaked their way through streets in the harbor front district of Tsim Sha Tsui, an area popular with Chinese tourists.

Organizers, who on Friday encouraged those they said might be “feeling exhausted after the July 1 protest,” have billed the march as an opportunity to explain to mainlanders in the city what their protest movement is about.

Inside China, where news and information are heavily censored, the Hong Kong protests have been portrayed as a primarily violent, foreign-funded plot to destabilize the motherland, not a mass popular movement over Beijing’s increased shadow over the semi-autonomous hub.

“We want these mainland tourists to know exactly what is going on in HK, because a lot of information is censored over there, a lot of people don’t know what is happening on HK, so we need to tell these mainland tourists what is happening,” a 25-year-old woman who asked to be identified by her surname Cheung told Coconuts Hong Kong.

“We might not speak to any mainland tourist or be able to communicate with them, but we have to keep trying,” she added. “I hope that people keep turning up every week to protest.”

Others we spoke to seemed less convinced of their impact.

Dominic Wong, 36, said he personally hadn’t seen many mainland tourists out today. Asked if he thought the march had been successful in spreading the message about the extradition bill to mainlanders, he replied, “not really.”

“We grew up in different cultures, and I’m not sure they understand what we’re thinking,” he added. “We’re just using out right to express our opinion.”

– Bluetooth and loud-hailers –

Hong Kongers speak Cantonese but protesters were using Bluetooth to send leaflets in Mandarin — the predominant language on the mainland — to nearby phones, hoping to spread the word to mainlanders by digital word of mouth.

“Why are there still so many people coming out to protest now?” one man said in Mandarin through a loudspeaker. “Because the Hong Kong government didn’t listen to our demands.”

Many protest banners were written with the Simplified Chinese characters used on the mainland, not the Traditional Chinese system used in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

And a lawmaker had to coach crowds how to chant “Students are not rioters” using the correct Mandarin pronunciation.

Protesters are demanding the postponed extradition bill be scrapped entirely, an independent inquiry into police use of tear gas and rubber bullets, amnesty for those arrested, and for the city’s unelected leader Carrie Lam to step down.

Beijing has thrown its full support behind Lam, calling on Hong Kong police to pursue anyone involved in the parliament storming and other clashes.

Sunday’s protest began on the waterfront — the first time a rally has taken place off the main island — and made its way to West Kowloon, a recently opened multi-billion-dollar station that links to China’s high-speed rail network.

Police placed the glass and steel structure in virtual lockdown. Long lines of water-filled security barriers surrounded the station while only those with previously purchased tickets were being allowed in.

Ticket sales for Sunday afternoon were halted and only two entrances were open.

– Controversial station –

The terminus is controversial because Chinese law operates in the parts of the station dealing with immigration and customs, as well as the platforms, even though West Kowloon is kilometers from the border.

Critics say that move gave away part of the city’s territory to an increasingly assertive Beijing.

Local politician Ventus Lau Wing-hong, one of those organizing the rally, said there was no desire to occupy the station given the catalyst for their movement was opposing people being sent to the mainland.

“All our mainland comrades can see how peaceful this protest is,” he told the crowd.

Police gave permission for the rally to go ahead but said officers would step in if anyone attempted to storm the station.

As darkness fell, organizers could be heard encouraging attendees to leave peacefully, saying “let’s leave together,” echoing one of the phrases students used as they had carried out four protesters who had chosen to remain as police approached LegCo in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.

Under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution China’s national laws do not apply to the city apart from in limited areas, including defense.

Hong Kong also enjoys rights unseen on the mainland, including freedom of speech, protected by a deal made before the city was handed back to China by Britain in 1997.

But there are growing fears those liberties are being eroded.

Among recent watershed moments critics point to are the disappearance into mainland custody of dissident booksellers, the disqualification of prominent politicians, the de facto expulsion of a foreign journalist and the jailing of democracy protest leaders.

Reporting by Vicky Wong and Stuart White.

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