Thousands of protesters throng streets of Hong Kong as government urges calm

A protestor wearing a Guy Fawks mask waves a flag during a Human Rights Day march organised by the Civil Human Rights Front in Hong Kong, China. [Reuters]
With chants of, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” anti-government activists, young and old, marched from Victoria Park in the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay to Chater Road near the heart of the financial district.

Authorities gave the green light to Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) - organiser of largely peaceful million-strong marches in June - to hold the rally, the first time the group has been granted permission for a protest since Aug. 18.

“I will fight for freedom until I die because I am a Hong Konger,” said June, a 40-year-old mother dressed in black seated on the grass in Victoria Park. “Today is about standing with Hong Kong, and the international community.”

The former British colony is governed under a “One Country, Two Systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not allowed in mainland China, but many fear Beijing is tightening the screws on the city and increasingly meddling in its affairs.

SEE ALSO :China gives Hong Kong leader 'unwavering support'

Beijing denies meddling, has condemned the unrest and blamed foreign governments, including the United States and former colonial power Britain, of interfering in the country’s internal affairs.

Echoes of “five demands, not one less” echoed through the streets, referring to protesters’ calls for universal suffrage in choosing the city’s leader, among other demands.

Police said earlier on Sunday they had arrested 11 people, aged 20 to 63 and seized weapons including army knives, firecrackers, 105 bullets and a semi-automatic pistol, the first seizure of a handgun in six months of protests.

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Roads that would normally be jammed with traffic on a Sunday near the heart of the city were empty, as a snaking crowd that included young families, students, professionals and the elderly clogged the streets of the Asian financial hub.

The violence in six months of demonstrations has escalated as protesters have torched vehicles and buildings, hurled petrol bombs at police, dropped debris from bridges onto traffic below and vandalized shopping malls, while police have responded with tear, gas, water cannon and, at times, live fire.

SEE ALSO :Hong Kong activists keep up protests on Christmas Day

The large turnout on Sunday signaled still broad support for the anti-government demonstrations despite the escalating unrest in a city where violence is rare.

The protest comes two weeks after democratic candidates secured almost 90% of 452 district council seats in local elections that saw a record turnout, posing a fresh conundrum for Beijing and piling pressure on Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam.

The protests intensified in June over a now-shelved extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial, but have now evolved into broader calls for democracy, among other demands.

In a statement on Saturday, the government appealed for calm and said it has “learned its lesson and will humbly listen to and accept criticism.”

Hong Kong’s new police commissioner, Chris Tang, said his force would take a flexible approach to demonstrations, using “both the hard and soft approach.”

SEE ALSO :'It doesn't matter if it's Christmas': Hong Kong pro-democracy activists keep up protests

The former British colony has been rocked by more than 900 demonstrations, processions and public meetings since June, with many ending in violent confrontations between protesters and police, who have responded at times with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Demonstrators are angry at what they perceive are more curbs on freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the then British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The chairman and president of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hong Kong were separately denied entry to the neighboring Chinese-ruled city of Macau on Saturday after being detained by immigration officials.

Hong Kong has enjoyed relative calm since local elections on Nov. 24 delivered an overwhelming victory to pro-democracy candidates.

Nearly 6,000 people have been arrested in the protests since June, more than 30% aged between 21 and 25.

SEE ALSO :Police, protesters clash during huge Hong Kong pro-democracy rally

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