Skip to main content

Pro-government protesters hit back with huge Hong Kong rally

By Wilfred Chan, CNN
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Hong Kong protesters denounce the Chinese government on August 31, 2014, after Beijing announced candidates for Hong Kong's next leader must be approved by a Beijing-backed committee. Hong Kong protesters denounce the Chinese government on August 31, 2014, after Beijing announced candidates for Hong Kong's next leader must be approved by a Beijing-backed committee.
August 31: Protesters denounce China's ruling
August 31: Protesters denounce China's ruling
August 31: Protesters denounce China's ruling
August 17: Anti-Occupy Central march
August 17: Anti-Occupy Central march
July 1: Rally draws mass crowds
July 1: Rally draws mass crowds
July 1: Rally draws mass crowds
July 1: Rally draws mass crowds
July 1: Rally draws mass crowds
July 1: Rally draws mass crowds
July 1: Rally draws mass crowds
July 1: Rally draws mass crowds
July 1: Rally draws mass crowds
July 1: Rally draws mass crowds
July 1: Rally draws mass crowds
July 1: Rally draws mass crowds
July 1: Rally draws mass crowds
  • Tens of thousands march to protest Occupy Central democracy movement
  • Organizer claims quarter-million attended march, other estimates far lower
  • Occupy Central organizer Benny Tai says he is not concerned
  • China's government will release decision on Hong Kong election reform soon

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Just call it the anti-protest protest.

Tens of thousands of people marched through Hong Kong yesterday in support of China and to protest Occupy Central, a pro-democracy movement that says it will plan to stage a civil disobedience sit-in unless the Chinese government allows the Hong Kong public to nominate and vote for its next leader.

Robert Chow, the organizer of Sunday's march, said it represented Hong Kong's desire to work "peacefully" with the Chinese government in Beijing on political reform.

"We want universal suffrage, but not at any cost," he told CNN Monday.

Is Hong Kong in decline?
Protesters demand democracy in Hong Kong
Do democracy protests threaten Beijing?

The pro-government march followed the same route as Hong Kong's massive annual anti-government, pro-democracy rally on July 1, but the tenor was markedly different: Sunday's marchers were arranged into organized groups wearing matching t-shirts, some emblazoned with names of mainland Chinese organizations. Many waved Chinese flags.

Paid protester claim

Local media swirled with reports of marchers getting paid or bused in to attend the pro-government march. One video (Cantonese) purportedly showed cash being handed out to marchers. Other images appeared to show marchers getting paid and enjoying free food in a dim-sum restaurant.

Chow said he took the bribery accusations "seriously" and would "investigate" but maintained that no laws were broken.

There were also conflicting reports on the size of the march. Chow said his group counted a "quarter million" marchers, but an estimate by University of Hong Kong statisticians put the number much lower, between 79,000 and 88,000.

By contrast, July's pro-democracy rally drew between 154,000 and 172,000, according to the university.

Pictures taken by reporters appeared to show a noticeably thinner crowd on Sunday than the crowd in July, but Chow said the difference was because "we were marching very, very fast."

Historic Hong Kong neighborhood fights to preserve its past

Different visions of democracy

Benny Tai, the organizer of Occupy Central, said Chow's rally offered "nothing substantial" in terms of new ideas.

"[Chow's supporters] talk about universal suffrage, but they never explain what they mean by universal suffrage."

Tai's group has proposed an electoral reform package in which every citizen would be allowed to vote for the city's next leader, with candidates freely nominated by the general public.

They take us seriously, though they will never admit that.
Benny Tai, Occupy Central organizer

But Beijing says it will only allow citizens to vote on candidates that are approved by a small, China-friendly committee.

Chow, who supports the government's plan, said Hong Kongers should take the deal rather than risk a volatile showdown with China.

"We want universal suffrage, with peace. Iraq has universal suffrage -- has it got peace? No, we don't want that," he said.

"Benny Tai wants a specific way of election, or else. If we don't get it, then all hell breaks loose."

The current chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, is favored by Beijing and has signed a petition in support of Chow's movement.

Under the "one country, two systems" policy, the seven million residents of Hong Kong -- defined as a "Special Administrative Region" of China -- are afforded greater civil liberties than those in the mainland, under a leadership approved by Beijing.

This reflects an agreement reached between China and the United Kingdom prior to the handover of the city in 1997, which promised Hong Kong a "high degree of autonomy" for 50 years after its return. But there are increasing fears that those freedoms are being eroded.

OPINION: Hong Kong's struggle for democracy matters

What is Beijing thinking?

The future of Hong Kong could become clear soon.

On August 31, China's powerful National People's Congress Standing Committee is expected to announce a decision on Hong Kong's electoral reform.

If the decision seems to leave open the possibility for Hong Kongers to nominate their own leaders, then Tai has said he'll work with the government to produce an election reform plan that "satisfies international standards."

But if not, "there will be no more negotiation and we will have to plan for Occupy Central."

The threat of civil disobedience "is our bargaining power," he explained. "They take us seriously, though they will never admit that."

Democracy in China?

Although at odds with one another, both Chow and Tai believe democracy in Hong Kong might one day lead to democracy in China.

Tai said Hong Kong is a test case for the mainland's political future.

"For political reform, that is, introducing true elections, Hong Kong could be the experimental ground for the Communist Party. The Chinese government will closely observe how elections will be conducted.

"If Hong Kong gets the chance to have true universal suffrage, that may reflect that China has the intention to introduce political reform or some kind of election in the future -- maybe in five or ten years."

Chow said Chinese democracy might look "very different from the western style of democracy.

"Maybe it'll turn out to be a better system."

READ MORE: Will protest or persuasion shape Hong Kong's future?

Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
A smuggler in Dandong, a Chinese border town near North Korea, tells CNN about the underground trade with North Korean soldiers
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Yenn Wong got quite a surprise one morning earlier this month when she found out an exact copy of her Hong Kong restaurant had opened in China.
updated 11:15 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
When I first came across a "virtual lover" service on e-commerce site Taobao, China's version of Amazon, I thought it was hype.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Each year Yi Jiefeng does what she can to stop China turning into a desert.
updated 10:54 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
As its relationship with the West worsen, Russia is pivoting east in an attempt to secure business with China.
updated 10:29 PM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
Aspiring Chinese comics performing in Shanghai's underground comedy scene hope to bring stand-up to the masses.
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Liu Wen is one of the world's highest-paid models and the first Chinese face to crack the top five in Forbes' annual list of top earners.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Cunning wolf? Working class hero? Or bland Beijing loyalist? C.Y. Leung was a relative unknown when he came to power in 2012.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
 A man uses his smartphone on July 16, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Only 53.5% of Japanese owned smartphones in March, according to a white paper released by the Ministry of Communications on July 15, 2014. The survey of a thousand participants each from Japan, the U.S., Britain, France, South Korea and Singapore, demonstrated that Japan had the fewest rate of the six; Singapore had the highest at 93.1%, followed by South Korea at 88.7%, UK at 80%, and France at 71.6%, and U.S. at 69.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Japan had the highest percentage of regular mobile phone owners with 28.7%. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
App hopes to help those seeking a way out of China's overstrained public health system.
updated 8:20 PM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yards from pro-democracy protests, stands the Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's armed forces.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
The massive street rallies that have swept Hong Kong present a major dilemma for China's leadership.
updated 3:07 AM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
Chinese wine drinkers need to develop a taste for the cheap stuff, not just premium red wines like Lafite.
updated 9:09 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, set off a media kerfuffle this month when he spoke about his next reincarnation.
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Sun September 28, 2014
He's one of the fieriest political activists in Hong Kong — he's been called an "extremist" by China's state-run media — and he's not old enough to drive.
updated 10:57 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
China has no wine-making tradition but the country now uncorks more bottles of red than any other.
updated 5:29 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
updated 1:38 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.