Hong Kong police arrested more than 500 protesters at a sit-in early Wednesday following a huge pro-democracy rally that organizers said mobilized half a million people demanding the right to choose their next leader.
The arrests came at the end of a largely peaceful rally on Tuesday that protest leaders said brought the biggest crowds onto the streets since the city was handed over from Britain to China in 1997.
Waving colonial-era flags and shouting anti-Beijing chants, protesters carried banners emblazoned with slogans including “We want real democracy” and “We stand united against China”.
Discontent in the city of seven million people is at its highest level in years over Beijing’s insistence that it vet candidates before a vote in 2017 for the semi-autonomous city’s next leader.
At the end of Tuesday’s march, hundreds of people joined a sit-in in Hong Kong’s Central financial district, with police moving in at 3:00 am to break up the protest.
Police arrested “511 people who were participating in an assembly that was not approved”, a police spokesman told AFP. Pro-democracy lawmakers were among those detained, local media reported.
Hong Kong enjoys liberties not seen on the mainland, including free speech and the right to protest, but there are heightened fears that those freedoms are being eroded.
Concerns increased in June when Beijing published a controversial “white paper” on Hong Kong’s future that was widely seen as a warning to the city not to overstep its bounds.
After the document was published, nearly 800,000 people took part in an unofficial referendum ballot calling for Hong Kong’s voters to be allowed a say in the nomination of candidates in the 2017 election.
Beijing branded the vote “illegal and invalid”.
Beijing’s state-run China Daily said Tuesday’s march proved that Hong Kong’s “citizens have continued to enjoy rights and freedoms since the handover”.
But dissidents were “trying to hijack political reform with regards to the process for electing the chief executive” and had “resorted to unlawful activities” to pursue their goal, it said, in a reference to the recent unofficial referendum.
The pro-Beijing Hong Kong Commercial Daily warned that the protest movement risked damaging the city’s freewheeling economy.
“To prevent Hong Kong from changing beyond imagination, one should make extra efforts to treasure the current stability and prosperity,” the paper said in an editorial.
“Imagine an economy without prosperity, with people being jobless and industries dysfunctioning, it would be difficult to talk about livelihoods,” it said.
Pro-democracy group Occupy Central, which organized the referendum, has said that it will stage a mass sit-in in the city’s business district later this year unless authorities come up with acceptable electoral reforms.
China has promised to let all Hong Kong residents vote for their next leader instead of the 1,200-strong pro-Beijing committee that currently chooses the city’s chief executive.
But Beijing says candidates must be approved by a nomination committee, which democracy advocates fear will mean only pro-China figures are allowed to stand.
The United States gave its support to voices calling for Hong Kong’s voters to be given a say in who can run in 2017, while acknowledging that details of the election were still to be set in stone.
“We believe that the legitimacy of this person will be enhanced if universal suffrage is fulfilled and if the election provides a genuine choice of candidates that are representative of the voters’ will,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.
The pro-reform Apple Daily newspaper welcomed Tuesday’s rally, which saw swarms of protesters pour onto clogged streets through the afternoon and evening despite soaring humidity and rainstorms, as “a repeat of the ’03 miracle”.
It was a reference to a massive rally in 2003 where half a million people took to the streets against a national security bill that was later shelved.
Rally organizer Johnson Yeung said at least 510,000 protesters joined the rally. The figure was believed to be a record for July 1 protests, an annual outpouring of discontent.
Official estimates were more conservative, with police saying 98,600 people took part during the “peak” of the rally.
One of those marching, the chairman of the Hong Kong post office union, Ip Kam-fu, said he joined the rally to protect the next generation, accusing the city’s government of kowtowing to Beijing.
“This march is not for us, it’s for our children. Without universal suffrage there’s no way to monitor the government,” he said.