HONG KONG—Tens of thousands of mostly young pro-democracy activists rallied in Hong Kong on Oct. 14 in the first legal protest since the introduction of colonial-era emergency laws and pleaded for help from the United States.
They chanted “Fight for Freedom, Fight for Hong Kong” as they gathered peacefully near central government offices in the Admiralty district of the China-ruled city.
Emergency laws introduced on Oct. 5 banning face masks at rallies and carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail have sparked some of the worst violence since the unrest started.
On Monday night, many protesters wore face masks in defiance of the ban.
Speakers urged the United States to pass a Hong Kong human rights act to ensure democracy for the former British colony, which returned to Chinese Communist Party rule in 1997.
“Make Hong Kong Great Again,” read one poster. Some protesters waved the U.S. flag and carried “Uncle Sam” recruitment posters reading “Fight for Freedom, Stand with HK.”
“All of the Hong Kong people feel hopeless and the government hasn’t listened to our voices so we need the USA to help us,” said protester Edward Fong, 28.
Organizers estimated approximately 130,000 attendees at the protest, with police saying that there were about 25,200 protesters gathered at the peak of the event.
The protesters are angry at what they see as Beijing’s tightening grip on the city which was guaranteed 50 years of freedoms under the “one country, two systems” formula under which it returned to communist China.
The unrest poses one of the biggest popular challenges to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. He warned that any attempt to divide China would be crushed.
“Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones,” Xi said in a meeting on Sunday with leaders in Nepal, where he was visiting, according to China’s state broadcaster CCTV.
Violent One Day, Peaceful the Next
In contrast to Monday night’s peaceful protest, rallies descended into chaos on Sunday with running skirmishes between protesters and police in shopping malls and on the streets.
Police said protests had escalated to a “life-threatening level.”
Unidentified black-clad activists threw 20 petrol bombs at one police station, while others trashed shops and metro stations.
A crude explosive device, which police said was similar to those used in “terrorist attacks,” was remotely detonated as a police car drove past and officers were clearing roadblocks on Sunday night.
A police officer also had his neck slashed by one protester.
“Violence against police has reached a life-threatening level,” said Deputy Commissioner of Police Tang Ping-keung.
“They are not protesters—they are rioters and criminals. Whatever cause they are fighting for … it never justifies such violence.”
“In June, 2 million took to the street and demonstrated peacefully, yet the government showed a complete disregard to the public opinion … Escalation of violence is inevitable,” said regular protester Jackson Chan, 21.
On Monday, speakers called on U.S. senators to vote for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, saying it would be their “most powerful weapon.”
The bill supports human rights in Hong Kong with measures under consideration such as annual reviews of its special economic status and sanctions on those who undermine its autonomy. The text will not be finalized until it passes both houses of Congress and is signed by the president.
“We are exhausted and scared, many of us have been detained and tortured … We believe international help will come one day,” one speaker said.
Police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at brick- and petrol bomb-throwing protesters and arrested more than 2,300 people since June, many teenagers. Two people have been shot and wounded.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam is due to deliver her annual Policy Address on Wednesday amid pressure to restore confidence in the government.
Hong Kong is facing its first recession in a decade because of the protests, with tourism and retail hardest hit.
By John Ruwitch and Jessie Pang