Thousands of Hong Kong civil servants and protesters have crammed into a downtown park to denounce the administration’s listless response to the Chinese territory’s ongoing extradition bill crisis.
Cheers of “Hong Kongers, keep going!” echoed through Chater Garden in the city’s central business district on Friday evening.
Here, members of the civil service took an unprecedented step of dissent to echo a widespread call for an independent inquiry into the handling of a controversial bill and urged the public to participate in a territory-wide strike on Monday.
Organisers estimated the turnout to be 40,000 while police put the figure at 13,000.
Protesters began spilling out into the neighbouring streets near the city’s old colonial Supreme Court building even before the two-hour gathering began.
The civil servants were emboldened, not discouraged, by government warnings not to attend.
“In the past few weeks, there have been many conflicts between Hong Kong citizens and the police, and the government still refuses to reply to the public demands,” said co-organiser of the protest, Chan, who requested to be referred to by his surname.
“After work, we are just ordinary citizens. We are just Hong Kong people and we should have the right protected by the basic law to speak freely to participate in any demonstration.”
Demonstrations have rocked Hong Kong for the last nine weeks over a now-shelved bill that would have allowed fugitives to be sent to mainland China.
The protests transformed into a larger movement drawing millions to rally against the Chinese government and the erosion of the semi-autonomous region’s civil liberties.
“This is the very first time civil servants have protested against the government,” said Samson Yuen, assistant professor of political science at Lingnan University.
“This is an important moment when cracks on the wall are becoming salient.”
On Thursday, the government of beleaguered leader Carrie Lam issued a statement against the rally, saying civil servants must serve the government with “total loyalty” or else “seriously follow up on any violations of regulations by civil servants”.
“Any acts to undermine the principle of political neutrality of the civil service are totally unacceptable to the government as this will damage the public’s confidence … and give a wrong impression to the public that civil servants are unable to discharge their duties in an impartial manner,” the statement read.
But K, a civil servant in the architectural services department, decided to attend the rally after reading that statement, particularly angered by recent police behaviour.
In recent weeks, clashes between protesters and police have escalated. While most demonstrations have started peacefully, fringe groups regularly end up clashing with police who often disperse crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Calls for an independent inquiry have intensified further since the recent violent attack in Yuen Long, where rod-welding mobsters attacked civilians and protesters returning home from an anti-government demonstration.
The police force was lambasted for its slow response to the attack that left at least 45 people injured, including a pro-democracy legislator and journalists. Police arrested at least six men in connection to the mob attack.
Co-organiser Chan called the incident, and the lack of police response, “totally unacceptable and far beyond our expected moral standards”.
Distrust in the police force continues to increase as the government continues to ignore demands to carry out an independent inquiry into police violence.
“We are very concerned about how constitutionally the police are running right now,” said Albert, a 35-year-old civil servant.
Albert attended the rally wearing a surgical mask following rumours that the government would be screening the attendees.
“We are very concerned about the quality of the police. We are also very concerned about the government’s overall handling of democracy and freedom of speech,” said Albert.
Most civil servants who attended were vague about their role in civil service for fear of managerial retribution. Many plan to skip work on Monday for a territory-wide strike.
“We are afraid because … our bosses warned us and said it could have negative impact on our career,” said Doris, a 24-year-old rally participant who will skip work on Monday at her government-funded council job, despite her fears.
“This is our right, and we are just using our annual leave to skip work to strike.”
Multiple rallies and marches in Hong Kong are planned for the weekend.
Source: Al Jareeza