Thousands are expected to take part in a major pro-government rally in Hong Kong Sunday to counter a civil disobedience campaign that has pledged to paralyse the city in a push for electoral reform.
Public discontent in Hong Kong is at its highest for years, with concern over perceived interference from Beijing and growing divisions over how its leader should be chosen in 2017 under political reforms.
Pro-democracy campaigners from the Occupy Central group have pledged to mobilise protesters to take over some of the busiest thoroughfares of the financial hub if public nomination of candidates is ruled out by the authorities.
But the movement has been heavily criticised by Beijing and city officials as being illegal, radical and violent.
Organisers of Sunday’s rally, the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, say the silent majority of the city’s seven million residents do not support the Occupy movement.
“We want to let the world know that we want peace, we want democracy, but please, do not threaten us, do not try to turn this place into a place of violence,” alliance co-founder Robert Chow told AFP.
More than 120,000 people have signed up for the rally, which started shortly after 1:30 pm (0530 GMT), but the turnout could reach up to 200,000, the alliance said.
“I am here to oppose occupy, as simple as that. It is a bad thing for young people,” a 70-year-old retired chef, who only identified himself by his surname Wong, told AFP.
Organisers said about 1,500 people, some brandishing Chinese flags, took part in a morning run in the lead-up to the afternoon march.
One participant of the “run and sweat” for peace and democracy event told local broadcaster Cable Television: “It (Occupy Central) will damage Hong Kong’s economy.”
– ‘Turn Central into battleground’ –
Chow said that the Occupy movement had “stepped over the line”.
“What they are trying to say is that if China does not bow to them, then they will occupy Central, they are going to turn the whole place into some sort of a battleground,” he said.
An area dubbed as a “shrine for peace” has been set up in the Central business district for participants to dedicate flowers and offerings.
Hong Kong was handed over from Britain to China in 1997 under an arrangement that guarantees the city’s freedom and civil liberties including free speech and the right to protest.
China says residents can vote for Hong Kong’s leader in 2017 but concerns are growing that the city’s pro-Beijing administration will set out a proposal that vets candidates.
Hong Kong’s chief executive is currently chosen by a pro-Beijing committee.
An unofficial referendum organised by Occupy activists saw the majority of 800,000 people who voted supporting reform packages that allow civil nominations.
A July march following the referendum, which organisers said was joined by over half a million people, saw protesters voice anger at Beijing’s ever-tightening grip on Hong Kong.
In a counter move, an Alliance petition campaign supported by pro-Beijing groups and officials has so far collected some 1.4 million signatures, according to the group.
“I am… opposed to using illegal means including “occupying Central”, which is designed to be illegal, to achieve “universal suffrage,” Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying told reporters Friday after signing the petition.