HONG KONG — Tens of thousands of people marched under a blistering sun in Hong Kong on Sunday to express their opposition to a pro-democracy movement that has threatened to bring Asia’s biggest financial center to a standstill if the government does not open up the nomination process for electing the city’s top leader.
Protesters, many waving Chinese flags, streamed into Victoria Park in midafternoon before a planned march, and the contrast with a rally held July 1 by pro-democracy organizers was stark.
Many, if not most of the participants in Sunday’s rally, were born in mainland China. Most were organized into groups corresponding to Chinese hometowns, schools or, in some cases, employers, easily identifiable with their matching T-shirts and hats. Middle-aged and elderly people dominated Sunday’s march, while young people dominated last month’s march.
In speech, too, they often employed the political lexicon of China’s ruling Communist Party. Typical was Kitty Lai, an investment adviser wearing an orange T-shirt and a baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of the Hong Kong Federation of Fujian Associations, a group that represents people who hail from the coastal province across from Taiwan. She said shutting down the Central business district would cause chaos.
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“We want everything to be stable,” Lai, 50, said, in Mandarin Chinese. “We want everybody to live harmoniously.”
Organizers of the July 1 rally estimated that more than 500,000 took part in that demonstration, which ended with hundreds of participants being arrested, including some lawmakers, after they staged an overnight sit-in protest in the Central district.
Hong Kong’s police said 111,800 people left Victoria Park on Sunday for the march, more than the 98,600 they recorded on the July 1 march. Yet photographs taken at the peak points of both marches at the same location show many more people on the street for the July 1 event.
An independent count by Hong Kong University put the maximum number of participants on Sunday at 88,000, compared with a maximum of 172,000 for the July 1 rally.
The protesters Sunday wanted to show their opposition to Occupy Central With Love and Peace, an umbrella organization encompassing a wide swath of Hong Kong society, including students, Christian religious leaders and some bankers.
Occupy Central leaders have vowed to bring Central to a standstill with a sit-in protest should the national legislature and the city government insist on a plan for nominating the chief executive that bars candidates unacceptable to Beijing.
That could be set in motion at the end of this month, when the National People’s Congress in Beijing is to issue guidelines to the Hong Kong government on how it can write new election rules.
The Alliance for Peace and Democracy, which organized Sunday’s event, claims it has gathered 1.4 million signatures in its petition drive against Occupy Central. Occupy Central gathered about 800,000 signatures in a referendum it held in June that was overseen by a university polling group.
Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive, signed the Alliance for Peace and Democracy petition, as did a former chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa.
“Hong Kong people desire peace, they’re not afraid of speaking out, and the silent majority has spoken,” Robert Chow, a spokesman for the Alliance, said in an interview. “Why should they follow Occupy Central and try to hold Hong Kong hostage? If they really want universal suffrage, negotiate with Beijing, negotiate with the government.”
Under the laws that have governed Hong Kong since its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 from Britain, the territory is to move to a system of universal suffrage for picking the chief executive, set for the 2017 election.
But any plan must pass the city’s legislature with a supermajority. Pro-democracy leaders have enough seats in the 70-member Legislative Council to scuttle any proposal should it fail to meet their demands, assuming they stay united.
Some business associations, including leading U.S. accounting firms, have warned that a protest movement that shut or slowed down Hong Kong’s Central district would harm the city’s image and its economy. China’s vice president, Li Yuanchao, has called the occupy movement “unlawful.”
“We’re fine the way we are,” said Anita Kwan, a resident in her 40s, speaking in Cantonese, the native language in Hong Kong. “Occupy Central damages Hong Kong’s stability and reputation.”
Top Chinese officials overseeing Hong Kong are to meet Thursday with the territory’s legislators in the mainland city of Shenzhen, which abuts Hong Kong, in the prelude to the vote by the National People’s Congress.
On Sunday in Victoria Park, the police presence was extremely light, and mostly there to help guide the peaceful demonstrators across intersections. Many participants brought along their Indonesian and Filipino domestic helpers, who also donned the T-shirts and hats, with some given Chinese flags to wave.
After they had left, the detritus of protests, including posters, water bottles and flags, were strewn across the park, in contrast to the aftermath of pro-democracy rallies, when volunteers patrolled the ground, cleaning up everything, including wax from candle drippings.
The organizers of Occupy Central said on their Twitter account that the anti-Occupy rally Sunday should help motivate their own movement.
“If the horrifying vision of HK manifested by anti-Occupy doesn’t make us fight harder for real democracy, something’s wrong with our side,” the group said.