Pro-government protesters hit back with huge Hong Kong rally

Story highlights

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.

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.”

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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.

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.

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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?