SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) Pro-democracy protesters streamed through the heart of Hong Kong on Sunday in their first sizable show of strength since the police cleared occupations that blocked streets for 11 weeks late last year.
The protest was much smaller and milder than the “Occupy” protests that ended in mid-December, and fell well short of the 50,000 participants that organizers had promised. In the end, they estimated that 13,000 people joined, while the police estimated that the crowd reached 8,800 at its peak.
But the march was a tentative test of how much support the pro-democracy groups could muster in the new year for their campaign to force the government into accepting open elections for the city’s top official.
“We want to sustain the momentum after the Occupy protests,” Joshua Wong, an 18-year-old student leader at the forefront of last fall’s street demonstrations, said while walking toward the financial district of Hong Kong.
Hundreds of police officers watched Sunday as the crowd walked through streets crammed with weekend shoppers. But there were no signs of confrontation with the protesters, many of whom held yellow umbrellas, a symbol of the street occupation last year.
For both the protest organizers and the police, the demonstrators’ return to the streets presented a delicate challenge. Though many Hong Kong residents support general demands for unfettered democracy, growing numbers had grown tired of the street occupations by the time they ended in December.
For the police force, heavy-handed tactics could inflame public anger, as they did in late September, when the sight of democracy protesters, many of them students, being dispersed by tear gas and pepper spray ignited an outpouring of sympathy.
The demonstration was organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, a coalition of advocacy groups, which secured police approval for the assembly, unlike the unapproved protests that erupted into street camps across three parts of the city and drew tens of thousands at their height.
The protesters had hoped to overturn an election plan for Hong Kong issued by the Chinese national legislature on Aug. 31. That plan would allow residents a direct vote for the city’s leader, or chief executive, starting from 2017, but only from a list of two or three candidates already approved by a committee where most members are loyal to Beijing. Pro-democracy groups and politicians say that pre-screening would deprive voters of any real say.
“We are at a critical juncture,” Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, a member of the pro-democracy Labor Party in Hong Kong’s city legislature, or Legislative Council, said in an interview. Advocates of full democracy need to win over wavering public opinion, which could be alarmed by renewed street violence, he said.
“It depends on whether we can win that support or whether the middle ground will go along with the government’s proposals,” Mr. Cheung said. “It would be difficult to go back to Occupy on the streets; that would get a hostile response.”
Angela Chu, an employee in an investment company who joined the protest, said: “This is a way to tell people that we’re still here. But marching can’t be the only means.”