Hong Kong democracy activists kicked off a weekend of fresh rallies yesterday in a major test for the movement following criticism over an airport protest earlier this week -- and as concerns mount over Beijing’s next move.
The new marches came as thousands of pro-government supporters -- many waving Chinese flags -- gathered in a park to condemn their opponents and support the police, a stark illustration of the polarisation now coursing through the city.
Ten weeks of demonstrations have plunged the international finance hub into crisis, with communist-ruled mainland China taking an increasingly hardline tone, including labelling the more violent protester actions “terrorist-like”.
Democracy activists are billing the weekend rallies as a way to show Beijing and the city’s unelected leaders that their movement still enjoys broad public support, despite increasingly violent tactics deployed by a minority of hardcore protesters that have cast a shadow.
On Tuesday, protesters blocked passengers from boarding flights at the city’s airport and later assaulted two men they accused of being Chinese spies. The images damaged a movement that until then had largely only targeted the police or government institutions, and prompted some soul-searching among protesters.
China’s propaganda apparatus seized on the violence, with state media churning out a deluge of damning articles, pictures and videos.
State media also ran images of military personnel and armoured personnel carriers across the border in Shenzhen, prompting the United States to warn Beijing against sending in troops, which analysts say would be a reputational and economic disaster for China.
Yesterday’s rallies began with thousands of teachers marching through torrential rain in support of the largely youth-led protests. In the afternoon thousands also marched through Hung Hom and To Kwa Wan, two harbourside districts popular with mainland tourists.
Some protesters targeted the local offices of the staunchly pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions, pelting it with eggs and spraying graffiti.
But across the harbour at the pro-Beijing rally, where a giant screen showed recent clashes with police, 60-year-old retiree Irene Man had a very different take as she rounded on democracy protesters.
“Their acts are not human, they have all become monsters. They are rioters, with no reason, no thinking,” she said.
The biggest pro-democracy rally is expected to take place today on the main island.
Meanwhile, the European Union yesterday called for “inclusive dialogue” to calm tensions in Hong Kong.
“It is crucial that restraint be exercised, violence rejected, and urgent steps taken to de-escalate the situation,” EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.