March stirs memories of 2003 protest and invigorates pro-democracy camp. Both mass demonstrations show defiance of city’s residents. Jeffie Lam specially for the South China Morning Post.
Teenager Anna Chan Wah fought through a sea of demonstrators, undeterred by searing heat, the crawling pace of the protest – and even a gnawing fear of failure.
“We know our street protest today is not going to change anything, but we are here to fight for democracy in Hong Kong and to show that we still have a voice,” she said.
That was in 2003, when sixth former Chan spoke to the Post during the march against the national security legislation that brought half a million people to the streets.
Fast forward to 2019, the exact same sentiments rang loud and clear in the city on Sunday as hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers poured onto the streets – once again to show defiance.
This time the protest was against an extradition bill that would allow the transfer of fugitives to places with less robust legal systems, including mainland China.
Many protesters told the Post they were pessimistic that the bill would be halted. Still, they were not ready to give up without a fight. Many stayed true to their DNA as Hongkongers, exercising their freedom, and taking to the streets to send a message.
Aniken Pang Hoi-tin, a 21-year-old student, sounded uncannily like Chan back in 2003.
“I don’t care whether our action will affect the government’s decision – I only know I have to do something to protect the place which I live in,” Pang said.
“Those in power should have protected their people.”
Janus Wong, a 40-year-old social worker, admitted the possibility of the city’s government ignoring their calls, even as organisers estimated more than a million people showed up to protest on Sunday.
“But Hongkongers still have to speak up to express themselves and tell the world Hong Kong is different from China,” he said. “Mainlanders might dare not to speak up regarding what their government has done, but Hongkongers will.”
The procession on Sunday began in the early afternoon and continued as day gave way to dusk. By nightfall, the long column of the mass protest had passed through the city’s centre and encircled government headquarters in Admiralty. The day’s events reignited memories of the historic protest of 2003.
But after midnight, the situation went sour. Ugly scenes of violence erupted outside the Legislative Council as a mob stormed steel barricades. Police responded with batons and pepper spray as news cameras rolled.
Fifteen years ago, angry protesters were driven by multiple frustrations, from the national security bill to the Sars outbreak and a gloomy economy.
Marchers on Sunday had only one fear: that the extradition bill could lead to unfair trials and human rights violations on the mainland.
“I have absolutely no faith that the city’s leader, who does not even dare to talk about the Tiananmen Square crackdown, would play her gatekeeping role well in handling extradition requests from the mainland,” said Matthew Ng Kwok-bun, 50, a visually impaired resident whose last rally was the 2003 demonstration.
“It is a make-or-break moment for Hong Kong and I have no choice despite not being a frequent protest-goer.”
Dr Rose Wu, the first convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front who helped organise the 2003 march, said the spontaneous response from a wide spectrum of people who joined hands in Sunday’s march was unparalleled – and far different from the outpouring of anger in 2003.
“People are voicing their concerns by forming their own groups instead of institutional platforms,” Wu said.
She spoke in reference to the hundreds of online petitions that emerged last month to oppose the bill, and were signed by students, university alumni and housewives.
Overseas, protests were being staged in more than 20 cities worldwide.
“The swift and strong reactions around the world have also provided a great boost for Hongkongers,” Wu said.
While comparisons with the 2003 march were inevitable, Sunday’s turnout was also a bittersweet reunion for the pro-democracy camp, which had splintered after the Occupy movement of 2014 dissipated in failure. The 79-day sit-in was meant to be a battle against Beijing’s restrictive stance on electoral reforms. But far from softening, the central government took a hardline view on Occupy, and tightened its grip on the city.
Sunday’s protest galvanised the pro-democracy supporters, reigniting their commitment. Among them was Oscar Fung Chun-yu, a 38-year-old artist. He said he was moved when he saw scores of Hongkongers returning to Victoria Park – the starting point of the march – on Sunday.
“I was also stuck in a sense of helplessness since Occupy, but that did not keep me from attending various protests over the past few years,” he said.
“The march today gave me a feeling that everybody is returning to the cause.”
Fung recalled that several of his friends had parted ways after the Occupy movement. Some former allies, he said, no longer called for democracy in Hong Kong and had come to believe that breaking away from China was the only solution for the city.
“Some of them have been in a cold war,” Fung said. “But what happened today has proved that Hongkongers have not changed. They still want to protect their home and there is still room for all of us to work together.”
Edmund Cheng Wai, a political scientist at Baptist University, said Sunday’s march was a remarkable chapter in the city’s history. He said Hongkongers – young, old and across the political spectrum – had come together to fight one single cause, in contrast to the 2003 march.
“Protesters still want to make a statement even though Beijing has already made its call to back the bill,” he said. “They fear they would lose their rights to speak up following the passage of the bill. They want to execute and treasure that right – and that is what has made Hong Kong special.”
Cheng said someone from the administration had to be held accountable for the contentious nature of the bill, adding that the debacle had exacted a toll on Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s governance.
“Lam has not only offended the pan-democrats, but also the general public and professional elites. No one would want to be – or appear to be – her close allies now.”
Back in 2003, the sixth former Chan might have been pessimistic about being able to change the course of the national security legislation. Four days after that march, however, the government did back down and shelved the bill.
On Sunday, even as they expressed pessimism, protesters said they deserved a proper response from the government.
A 70-year-old housewife, who only gave her surname as Wong, spoke for many when she said the government ought to respect the protesters enough to pay heed.
She pledged to join further protests if the government stayed silent.
“This is a draconian law,” she said, “and it will affect the future of our next generation.”
Additional reporting by Shirley Zhao