K-pop vs. democracy: Hong Kongers vote with their feet at annual protest rally

K-pop, shmay-pop
K-pop, shmay-pop
Image: AP Images
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Hong Kong youths faced a dilemma yesterday: join an annual rally for democracy in the middle of a typhoon, attend a K-pop concert funded by property developers, or just stay home.

The choice was simple for three soaked and giggling 16-year-old girls. “We like K-pop, but we don’t like the government. Coming here is more meaningful,” said Mimi. Her friends Holly and Eliza, huddled under umbrellas, nodded their approval. They joined throngs trudging from Victoria Park to Central District in the rain. Organizers estimated attendance at 430,000; police estimated the tally at 66,000.

Citizens took their grievances to the streets on a public holiday marking 16 years since Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China. Road access restrictions caused bottlenecks, and occasional scuffles erupted as police blocked protesters. Along the route, pan-democratic groups shouted slogans and demanded that Chief Executive CY Leung resign. Giant placards demanded universal suffrage and mocked Leung in caricature. Some protesters waived colonial, British or Taiwanese flags; others burned pages from Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the territory’s mini-constitution.

The protesters’ biggest competition came from the K-pop concert across the harbor. The “Hong Kong Dome Festival” was ostensibly meant to draw attention to how much Hong Kong needs a bigger performance venue; tickets were offered at a cut-rate price of HK$99 (US$13). To many Hong Kong democracy activists, it was a blatant attempt to subvert the protests.

“I can feel the pressure increasing from government and pro-establishment groups,” said Jackie Hung of the Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized the annual protest rally since 2003, when roughly half a million people swarmed Hong Kong’s streets to oppose an anti-subversion law. In the aftermath of that protest, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee Hwa, resigned and the government indefinitely shelved the law known as Article 23.

Hung stressed that the coming months are crucial for ensuring true democracy for Hong Kong. The city was previously scheduled to implement universal suffrage for its chief executive in 2012, but Beijing delayed the date until 2017. Beijing officials have said that only candidates “who love China and Hong Kong” will be allowed, raising fears that pro-democracy opposition candidates don’t stand a chance.

During the Dome Festival, hometown acts spoke out against their critics as the audience of 18,000 (mostly teenagers) waded through the water at the uncovered Kai Tak development site. The group RubberBand—which like other participating bands was blasted by fans for distracting from Monday’s protests—was particularly outspoken, playing  an anthem for 1989’s Tiananmen Square democracy protest and calling for universal suffrage onstage. After the show, the group played again for the protesters in Central.

Hong Kong was also the site of numerous celebrations of the handover anniversary. (In previous years, Handover celebrations occurred during the morning; this year they coincided with the afternoon protest.)

A police officer said 2,000 people attended one event at government headquarters that concluded prematurely due to rain.

The nationalistic Voice of Loving Hong Kong hosted a carnival in Tsim Sha Tsui where people read an oath to “protect Hong Kong” and condemned next year’s planned Occupy Central protest. Protesters are planning a series of events that will culminate in a 10,000-strong civil disobedience campaign on July 1, 2014 if Hong Kong’s government does not provide satisfactory details about political reform.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Celebrations Association, a coalition of pro-Beijing groups, coordinated discounts at more than 1,000 stores offering up to 50 percent off various goods and services. “(July 1st) was the return of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China, to its motherland after 160 years of separation,” said association committee member Yeung Yiu-chung. “It represents the unification of China. Up until now, only Taiwan is still away.”

Hung mocked the promotions. “There is no discount for universal suffrage,” she said. “We are not trying to ask for any discount on Hong Kong democracy because we can’t sell our dignity.”