HONG KONG — After a year in which democracy advocates in Hong Kong were jailed and ousted from public office, thousands of people marched through the streets of Hong Kong on New Year’s Day to warn China not to meddle further in the city’s affairs and undermine its autonomy.
Over the past year, Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, has experienced what critics and pro-democracy activists describe as an intensifying assault on its autonomy by China’s Communist Party leaders.
This is despite Beijing’s promises to grant the city wide-ranging freedoms, including an independent judiciary, under a so-called one country, two systems framework.
Besides the controversial jailing of several prominent young activists for unlawful assembly over the 2014 Occupy pro-democracy protests, the authorities also ejected six pro-democracy lawmakers from the legislature for failing to take proper oaths of office.
The city’s reputation as one of Asia’s most robust legal jurisdictions has also come under a cloud, amid accusations of a politicization of certain legal cases.
The protesters, who included many middle-aged and older citizens, held up banners and chanted the march’s main theme — “Protect Hong Kong” — during a walk of several miles to the city’s government headquarters.
Others denounced a move by China last week that said part of a high-speed railway station being built in Hong Kong would be regarded as mainland territory governed by mainland laws.
“We are here to tell the government that we will not give up,” said Joshua Wong, one of the democracy activists jailed last year, who is now out on bail pending an appeal.
“We have encountered many difficulties last year, including some of us being sued and jailed, but we will stand with Hong Kong people,” Mr. Wong said. “We will fight for the rule of law, fight for Hong Kong, fight for the future, fight for the next generations.”
Two protesters who dressed up as People’s Liberation Army soldiers said they were concerned about the reach of China’s security apparatus. Others called for full democracy as the only lasting means to safeguard the city’s way of life.
The organizers of the march said about 10,000 people had showed up. The police, however, put the figure at 6,200.
The demonstration was largely peaceful, though some protesters who later tried to gather in a square near the government’s headquarters skirmished briefly with security guards.
The so-called Civic Square was where the 2014 pro-democracy protests first kicked off, when a group of protesters climbed over a fence and faced off with local police officers.
Despite the defiance on show, some said they feared that Hong Kong would continue to be squeezed by Beijing.
“Everyone’s doing what they can,” said Andy Lau, who was among the marchers. “If we have the right to demonstrate then we should. But I’m not feeling positive. I think things will get worse.”
The Hong Kong government, in a statement, said it “fully respects the right of Hong Kong people to take part in processions and their freedom of expression.”
China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, has said that while Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy under “one country, two systems,” Beijing still holds supreme authority over the city and will not tolerate any challenge to its authority.
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