Braving torrential rain, hundreds of thousands of anti-extradition bill activists took to the streets of Hong Kong Sunday to peacefully show the city’s leaders that their movement still has broad public support, despite mounting violence and increasingly grim warnings from Beijing.

Legions of protesters carrying umbrellas poured across the heart of Hong Kong island, defying a police order not to march from Victoria Park, where they had gathered earlier for a rally.

Weeks of demonstrations have plunged the financial hub into crisis, with images of masked black-clad protesters engulfed by tear gas during street battles against riot police stunning a city once renowned for its stability.

Sunday’s action, billed as a return to the peaceful origins of the leaderless protest movement, drew more than 1.7 million people, making it one of the largest rallies since the demonstrations began about three months ago, according to organizers the Civil Human Rights Front.

Before the rally started in Victoria Park began at 2 pm, black-clad protesters had already filled all six soccer pitches. More protesters came from Causeway Bay and Tin Hau to join them.

Ignoring the rain, some sat on the ground and others stood and chanted slogans such as “Carre Lam step down” and “Hongkongers add oil.”

The protest was heavily promoted across Hong Kong as a chance for peaceful protesters to make sure their voices are heard and to pressure the government to accede to the five demands made by the anti-extradition movement.

Protesters in Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island on Sunday. Photo: Asia Times, Almen Chui

At 3:30 pm, the protesters, led by current and former lawmakers, left the rally site to provide room for others to take part, walking along Causeway Road in the direction of Central. But the roads near the park were very congested with people trying to leave while others were trying to enter.

A heavy downpour did not deter protesters from trying to reach the park on foot after the MTR operator shut three stations near Victoria Park – Tin Hau, Fortress Hill, and Causeway Bay. People were seen walking from three or four stations away from the park.

At 5 pm, Causeway Road and Hennessy Road were filled with protesters heading toward Admiralty.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of protesters remained at the park despite heavy rain.

Asia Times spoke to a number of protesters, most of whom had taken part in previous marches. They were angry at the government for ignoring their demands and at the police force for using excessive force and failing to treat protesters and gangsters equally.

A woman surnamed Lee said, “It has been two months and no official, no police have taken responsibility or stepped down.”

All protesters who spoke to Asia Times called for an independent commission to be set up to conduct a thorough investigation of the matter.

A man surnamed Chan said he was angry about Beijing’s interference with Cathay Pacific.

“It’s our right to have freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. When CX [Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific airline], such a large corporate in Hong Kong, also needs to kowtow and faces threats from the Beijing government, how can the small and medium companies in HK survive? We have no rights anymore.”

Protesters in Hong Kong on Sunday. Photo: Asia Times, Almen Chui

Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer of two million-strong marches in June, originally applied for permission to hold a rally in Victoria Park and a march to Central afterward.

The police granted permission for the rally in the park, which can only accommodate around 100,000 people, but banned the planned march, citing public order and safety concerns.

The Civil Human Rights Front said it lodged an appeal but it was rejected, adding that the police force’s decision was a potentially dangerous mistake because the group expected at least 300,000 people, and there would not be enough room for them all to gather in the park.

The police force’s decision put participants in Sunday’s protest at greater risk of arrest and police violence, as those who spilled out of overcrowded Victoria Park could potentially face prosecution for unlawful assembly, said the rights group.

Local media quoted police sources as saying that two water cannon-equipped anti-riot vehicles had been deployed to Hong Kong Island as a precautionary measure.

PLA’s help not required

Meanwhile, former justice secretary Elsie Leung Oi-sie said on Sunday morning that the situation in Hong Kong was not at a stage where help from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was required to deal with protests. It is not, she stressed, a national security issue. However, she added that even if the PLA is deployed, it would not violate the One country, two systems principle, Radio Television Hong Kong reported.

Leung noted that in the absence of armed protesters advocating independence, the current situation did not meet the criteria for Beijing declaring a state of emergency under Article 18 of the Basic Law.

She made the comment after news footage appeared to show Shenzhen police practicing crowd control in a stadium.

A Saturday without tear gas

It has been rare in recent weeks for the air to not be filled with tear gas on Saturdays.

As expected, a march in Hung Hom on Saturday started peacefully but ended with protesters taking to main streets in the area and moving to other districts such as Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei. Organizers said around 2,000 protesters took part.

Also read: HK protesters vow to ‘soldier on’ with huge rally

But unlike other recent marches, it did not culminate with tear gas being deployed. One officer fired one bean-bag round at a footbridge when a police car was hit by a garbage bin in Mong Kok. No one was injured. The protesters fled when police officers charged.

Earlier in the day, protesters descended on the workers’ club of a pro-Beijing group, the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), in To Kwa Wan and threw eggs at it, stuck flyers to its walls, and defaced it with spray paint. They said FTU members were the real rioters, citing the organization’s involvement in the 1967 leftist riots.

They also left some fresh pineapple in front of the premises, symbolizing bombs thrown by some 1967 rioters that were known locally as “pineapples bombs.”

Another group veered off to Hok Yuen street and threw eggs at the office of DAB lawmakers Starry Lee and Ann Chiang.

Fresh pineapples line the front of a pro-Beijing trade union’s building, symbolizing bombs thrown by 1967 rioters that were known locally as “pineapples bombs.” Image: Screen-grab, nowTV

– with additional reporting by AFP