By Clare Jim and Sarah Wu
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s police chief urged people to demonstrate peacefully on Sunday, when organisers expect a large turnout for a pro-democracy march intended to show the movement still has strong momentum.
Police have given a rare green light to the demonstration, organised by the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the group that called the largely peaceful million-strong marches in the summer.
“We hope our citizens can show the whole world Hong Kong people are capable of holding a large-scale rally in an orderly and peaceful manner,” police commissioner Chris Tang said on Friday before departing on a “courtesy visit” to Beijing.
Tang was expected to meet senior officials of China’s ministry of public security and return to Hong Kong hours before Sunday’s protest.
The march will gauge support for the pro-democracy movement following its victory in local elections last month.
“We want to tell Carrie Lam that the election results are not the end of the movement,” CHRF vice-convener Eric Lai said, referring to the chief executive of the Chinese-ruled city.
Police said they would intervene “immediately” if Sunday’s march turned violent. The unrest in Hong Kong is the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
Hundreds of protesters came out on Friday night to urge police to stop using tear gas. More than 10,000 rounds of tear gas have been fired by police in response to increasingly violent rallies.
“It’s not only a political issue but a matter of public health,” said Leung, a 25-year-old nurse who wore a black mask. “They shoot tear gas into residential areas.”
Police have said they have been forced to used tear gas to break up violent demonstrations. Residents have cited fears of dioxin poisoning from the gas. The city government has said it has found no evidence of dioxin poisoning from tear gas.
The former British colony has been racked by six months of pro-democracy protests, sparked by a now-withdrawn bill allowing extradition to China, which have widened into calls for greater democratic freedoms.
Protesters have set out five demands, including an investigation into alleged police brutality and universal suffrage. Beijing has condemned the unrest and blamed foreign interference.
Despite the increasingly violent tactics of some protesters, pro-democracy candidates won almost 90% of seats in the Nov. 24 local elections, following the highest turnout since local polls began in 1999.
Results of a survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) released on Friday show public satisfaction with the police has plummeted in the past year.
Calculated on a ranking out of 100, with zero representing very dissatisfied, the police scored 35.34, almost halving from November last year when they scored 62.48.
Net satisfaction with the police is the lowest since 1997, when PORI began comparable polling.
Economic data this week points to the growing toll of the sustained protests on the major global financial hub, which slid into recession this year for the first time in a decade.
The unrest has contributed 2 percentage points to Hong Kong’s third-quarter economic contraction of 3.2%, Finance Secretary Paul Chan told legislators on Friday.
On Wednesday, Chan pledged new relief measures of an extra HK$4 billion ($511 million), taking total stimulus plans to HK$25 billion.
Subway operator MTR Corp expects a decline of HK$1.6 billion in annual net profit, hit by a drop of 14% in passengers during the protests, as well as damage to its stations and facilities.
By Saturday, transport authorities will complete a review of plans for a cash injection for Hong Kong Airlines, which is battling a steep decline in demand as a result of the protests.
(Reporting by Clare Jim and Sarah Wu; Writing by Kate Lamb and David Dolan; Editing by Michael Perry, Clarence Fernandez, Alison Williams and Giles Elgood)