|A government proposal to scrap by-elections has been criticised by politicians as infringing on voters’ rights [AFP]|
More than 200,000 demonstrators have staged a peaceful rally against government policies and soaring property prices, the protest’s organisers have said.
Protesters at the rally, which marked the 14th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China, vented their frustration at a slew of issues including a controversial plan to scrap by-elections
Police arrested 231 people that took part in the march for “illegal assembly” and “causing obstruction in public places”.
A police spokesperson told the AFP news agency that all those detained were released after having their details recorded.
“To restore peace and social order, as well as to guarantee public safety and to let the normal traffic resume, police decided to act and arrest the protesters,” the police said in a statement on Saturday.
Police estimated the crowd at 54,000 and said some protesters refused to disperse after the march ended and were detained for illegal assembly and causing obstruction in public places.
Television news footage showed police using pepper spray in attempts to disperse the demonstrators following a standoff which lasted several few hours as the group refused to leave.
However, pro-democracy politicians and activists who led the demonstration told reporters that the arrests were unjustified.
“The demonstrators were very peaceful. They were just having a sit-in protest to make their demands heard,” Leung Kwok-hung, a politician who was among those arrested, said
“I don’t think there is any reason for the arrests,” he added.
Such arrests are rare in Hong Kong, which was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 but retains a semi-autonomous status with civil liberties – including press freedom and the right to hold public protests – which are not enjoyed in mainland China.
“Down, down with property tycoons”, demonstrators chanted as some blew whistles and beat drums to express their discontentment.
One of the big themes of the march was the growing rich-poor divide in Hong Kong, where skyrocketing property prices have left many residences unaffordable and forced out small shopkeepers.
Protest organisers said they wanted to protest against the “hegemony” of the city’s big property developers over the market.
Some protesters carried large signs depicting Donald Tsang, Hong Kong’s chief executive, and Li Ka-shing, the city’s richest man whose business empire includes a major property developer, with devil horns and vampire fangs.
They chanted slogans accusing the government and developers of colluding to establish a monopoly and some called for Tsang to step down from office.
Housing prices in Hong Kong have been driven up by ultra-low interest rates and excess liquidity, and the government has tried to cool the market by introducing measures twice since November.
‘Infringing voters’ rights‘
Organisers have said the huge turnout at the rally, one of the biggest in recent years, was mainly due to a controversial government proposal to scrap by-elections if a seat is vacant and instead fill it based on previous results.
The proposal has been widely criticised by politicians as infringing on voters’ basic rights.
“The proposal to get rid of by-elections to fill vacancies in the legislative council is a crazy idea and insulting to the intelligence of the people of Hong Kong,” said Martin Lee, an activist.
“That is one principal reason but also on social issues, there is a lot of unhappiness. That is why the people are coming.”
Analysts have said that the current level of dissatisfaction with the government is close to levels in 2003, when a record 500,000 people took part in the annual pro-democracy march that year.
The 2003 protest forced the government to shelve a controversial national security bill and was a key factor for the Tung Chee-hwa, the first chief executive of Hong Kong, to step down the following year.