HONG KONG, Sept. 28 (UPI) — Tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out on Saturday night to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement as Hong Kong’s protests continued for a 17th consecutive week.
Crowds filled Tamar Park along the Hong Kong waterfront to hear leaders of the Umbrella Movement speak, including Joshua Wong, who rose to international recognition as a bespectacled teenager on the front lines of the 2014 movement.
“We have even stronger determination this time,” Wong, 22, told UPI. “Instead of 200,000 people then, we have 2 million now.”
Wong, who announced earlier Saturday that he would be running in his local district council elections in November, has been arrested and imprisoned several times. He is currently out on bail after being arrested last month — along with several others — and charged with organizing an illegal rally.
“The price has been high for all of us, but it’s worth it,” Wong said. “This is our hometown.”
The Umbrella Movement began as protesters demanded greater democracy in choosing their city’s leadership. When police fired tear gas to disperse crowds on Sept. 28, 2014, the protest turned into a 79-day occupation of central streets in Hong Kong.
Although the Umbrella Movement ended in disarray without achieving its hoped-for democratic reforms, Saturday’s organizers said they learned valuable lessons from the past.
“We evolved from hopelessness and powerlessness and stand up again stronger,” read a statement released by the Civil Human Rights Front, the group that organized the anniversary event. “Our new generation of protesters are wiser, smarter, with more energy and strategies, bravely resisting the persecution of Beijing and Hong Kong governments.”
Hong Kong’s current protest movement emerged in response to a proposed extradition bill which would have made it easier to send fugitive criminal suspects to mainland China for trial, where an opaque and politically controlled justice system operates.
After several weeks of protests, the government of embattled leader Carrie Lam earlier this month formally withdrew the extradition bill. However, the move came too late to stem a public uprising that seeks to hold onto autonomy in legal and political affairs under the “one country, two systems” arrangement with Beijing that has been in place since 1997.
The protesters have put forth a set of five demands which include not just the withdrawal of the extradition bill, but an investigation into police brutality during the demonstrations, amnesty for arrested protesters and direct elections to choose the city’s politicians.
Ahead of Saturday’s anniversary rally, demonstrators covered streets and footbridges leading to the park with protest art and unfurled a banner reading “We are back” near the original site of the Umbrella Movement.
Images of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Lam were pasted to the ground for protesters to trample on, while posters and graffiti condemned the Oct. 1 anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Protesters are planning a major march on Tuesday’s anniversary, and many are anticipating a potentially fierce showdown with police and pro-Beijing groups.
Saturday evening saw sporadic violence ensue as groups of demonstrators threw bricks and Molotov cocktails at the city’s government headquarters and riot police fired pepper spray, tear gas and blue-dyed water cannons to disperse the crowds.
The violence was limited in scope compared to other outbursts over the summer, but it reflected a major break with the original 2014 Umbrella Movement, which remained relatively peaceful.
“It’s totally different now,” said Victoria Lee, a protester who participated in the Umbrella Movement five years ago. “The police are much more violent. They shoot tear gas and rubber bullets and beat people up.”
However, she said the protesters are also different this time around.
“We are more together than before,” she said. “All of us are doing whatever we can to stay involved.”