HONG KONG, July 21, 2019 (BSS/AFP) – Hong Kong is bracing for another huge anti-government march on Sunday afternoon with seemingly no end in sight to the turmoil engulfing the finance hub, sparked by years of rising anger over Beijing’s rule.
The city has been plunged into its worst crisis in recent history by weeks of marches and sporadic violent confrontations between police and pockets of hardcore protesters.
The initial protests were lit by a now suspended bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.
But they have since evolved into a wider movement calling for democratic reforms, universal suffrage and a halt to sliding freedoms in the semi-autonomous financial hub.
In a city unaccustomed to such upheaval, police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets while the parliament has been trashed by protesters — as Beijing’s authority faces its most serious challenge since Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997.
– Security tightened –
Sunday’s rally — which will follow a now well-trodden route through the main island’s streets — will be the seventh weekend in a row that protesters have come out en masse.
Generally the marches have passed off peacefully but are followed by violence between riot police and small groups of more hardcore protesters.
Security was tightened in the city centre, with metal street fencing often used by protesters to build barricades removed ahead of the march, and large water-filled barriers thrown up around the police headquarters.
The huge crowds have had little luck persuading the city’s unelected leaders — or Beijing — to change tack on the hub’s future.
Under the 1997 handover deal with Britain, China promised to allow Hong Kong to keep key liberties such as its independent judiciary and freedom of speech.
But many say those provisions are already being curtailed, citing the disappearance into mainland custody of dissident booksellers, the disqualification of prominent politicians and the jailing of pro-democracy protest leaders.
Authorities have also resisted calls for the city’s leader to be directly elected by the people.
– Acrimony deepening –
Protesters have vowed to keep their movement going until their core demands are met, such as the resignation of city leader Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty and a permanent withdrawal of the bill.
Yet there is little sign that either Lam or Beijing are willing to budge.
Beyond agreeing to suspend the extradition bill there has been few other concessions and fears are rising that Beijing’s patience is running out.
Earlier this week the South China Morning Post reported that Beijing was drawing up a plan to deal with Hong Kong, citing sources on the mainland.
But the details that were published suggested little appetite to defuse public anger over sliding freedoms and instead focused on shoring up support for Lam and the police.
On Saturday, the establishment mustered its own supporters in their tens of thousands for a rally, a gathering that was covered in detail by Chinese state media and pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong.
Few see a political solution to the crisis on the horizon.
Steve Vickers, a former head of the police’s Criminal Investigation Bureau before the handover who now runs a risk consultancy, said the public order situation would likely “worsen” in the coming weeks.
“Polarisation within Hong Kong society and intense acrimony between protesters and police are deepening,” he wrote in a note to clients.
“The protests are settling into a pattern of peaceful demonstration culminating in deliberately orchestrated violence, before a lull in preparation for the next ‘battle’,” he added.