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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong protesters defy ban to march with massive street rally

Organizers say 1.7m people attended as unrest enters 11th week

HONG KONG -- As anti-government protests entered an 11th week, tens of thousands of people defied a police ban to march through the downtown of Hong Kong island after attending an authorized demonstration in a city center park.

Braving a downpour and sporting umbrellas, the protesters -- many dressed in black -- assembled midafternoon in Victoria Park for the approved rally. The following unsanctioned march, however, shows the remaining tensions between demonstrators and the territory's government.

Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, the convener of organizer Civil Human Rights Front, announced on Sunday night that 1.7 million people participated in the rally at the park and its vicinity. This marks the third such rally to attract over 1 million people. Police, on the other hand, estimated that attendance reached 128,000 at its peak.

Sham told reporters at the park that the event was conducted in a "reasonable and nonviolent manner." He is considering the submission of a judicial review to the court over the decision by police against allowing the march.

A Hong Kong government spokesman confirmed the rally "was generally peaceful," though there were traffic disruptions.

The protests that began in early June were initially aimed at stopping a now-suspended bill that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. But the focus has expanded to issues such as violent police tactics and the lack of democratic accountability.

Sham had predicted to reporters a day before that more than 1 million people could show up for the rally aimed at voicing these demands to the Beijing-backed government of Hong Kong.

Since the park is only able to hold around 100,000 people, protesters began to flow out onto the street within an hour of the rally's start -- "like water," as Sham predicted. Led by pan-democratic lawmakers and activists, participants marched toward the government headquarters in the Admiralty district. The main streets and auxiliary roads were filled with people, blocking cars, buses and trams for hours.

As participants flocked to the street, a Hong Kong government spokesman issued a statement expressing "regret" over the Sunday demonstration -- not over the unauthorized march but over slogans targeting the police force.

People march to a rally to in central Hong Kong on Sunday.   © Reuters

Around 9 p.m. local time, the organizer declared the termination of the peaceful assembly in Victoria Park, though hundreds of people remained at the site. Many protesters who took to the street gathered on the main street close to the Admiralty and Central districts. Some huddled in front of the government building, using their laser pointers to shine beams of light.

A 36-year-old finance-sector worker who identified herself as Ms. Chan brought her 3-year-old son to the rally in the park. "I wanted to show my kid that we have the legal right to voice our opinion," she told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Seto, a 53-year-old teacher, came to the park with three of her former students. "I know an individual citizen cannot do anything," she said, but added that participating in such a rally allowed her to show her own will.

Due to the overwhelming number of people who arrived at the park, the police, in effect, allowed people to walk away from the venue and into parts of the city that were not included in the initially authorized areas. The police appear to have tacitly permitted a limited march in the city center as they blocked traffic to make way for the protesters.

Previous marches, however, have often ended up with clashes between police and protesters.

On Saturday, an authorized march in the Kowloon district led to a confrontation at a police station in Mong Kok, when a police officer fired a beanbag round after protesters dropped garbage bins and other objects onto police vehicles from a footbridge.

Although no tear gas was fired on Saturday, sporadic skirmishes erupted in number of places. A government spokesman issued a statement late Saturday condemning "illegal acts" and the police echoed this with a stern statement against protesters.

While the protests continue, China is flexing its muscles in the neighboring city of Shenzhen.

The latest footage on Weibo on Saturday showed a drill by thousands of military police and police in uniform, in which they suppressed protesters with tools including water cannons, tear gas, batons, and police dogs. A minute-long video included a verbal warning in Cantonese that said: "Stop the violence. Repent and be saved."

Mainland paramilitary officers were seen training in a stadium in Shenzhen on Sunday, according to local media reports. The Chinese People's Armed Police Force, as it is officially called, is part of the People's Liberation Army and reports to the Central Military Commission chaired by President Xi Jinping.

Pro-Beijing heavyweights in Hong Kong are backing this move. Elsie Leung Oi-sie, a former justice secretary of the territory, said in a local radio program on Sunday that even if the PLA is called in, it would be in accordance with existing legislation in Hong Kong. "It will not destroy the 'One country, two systems' framework," she said.

According to the Basic Law, or the city's mini-constitution, and the garrison law, the Hong Kong government could ask the central government to dispatch the military to restore order.

But protesters appeared to be unfazed by the military movements in Shenzhen.

"I don't think people in Hong Kong should be afraid of it, and I am not scared," said Jack, a 40-year-old who works in insurance. Even if Beijing used force, he said, it "would make the people of Hong Kong stronger, as people will get together and unite."

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