Tens of thousands of pro-Beijing demonstrators marched in Hong Kong on Sunday to protest the Occupy Central movement. Video: AP
HONG KONG—Pro-Beijing groups in Hong Kong mobilized thousands in a march to oppose Occupy Central, a democratic group that has threatened mass civil disobedience if China doesn’t offer the city a real choice in the next election for its leader.
The counter-rally, dubbed a “march for peace,” was meant to overshadow this year’s July 1 pro-democracy march, and to undermine the Occupy movement, which opponents have accused of putting Hong Kong’s economy at risk.
For months, Occupy Central’s organizers, led by two college professors and a Baptist minister, said they would assemble thousands of protesters to paralyze the city’s financial district if they judge China’s proposal on electing Hong Kong’s chief executive to be insufficiently democratic.
Their cause gained strength in June when an unofficial poll on democratic reform drew nearly 800,000 votes, followed by the large pro-democracy march. But public support for the civil disobedience appears to be waning, while the movement itself has been marred by internal discord over when to take to the streets.
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In recent weeks, a countermovement backed by the business community and Beijing-friendly groups, the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, started its own petition drive to denounce civil disobedience and Occupy Central in particular.
The group says it has collected over 1.3 million signatures, far more than Occupy Central’s poll on democracy in June. Those who signed the petition include Hong Kong Chief Executive
and other senior officials.
“They didn’t suddenly speak up; there’s no magic in this,” said
a former Hong Kong radio host and the public face of the Alliance for Peace and Democracy. “Occupy Central screwed up. This is a group of people saying they want one step less than a riot.”
Mr. Chow said he is confident that a critical mass of Hong Kong people won’t sympathize with the civil-disobedience movement, especially if their economic interests are at stake.
Pro-Beijing protesters gather ahead of a march against the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong on Sunday.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, continues to observe British common law under the doctrine of “one country, two systems” established when the city was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The city is governed by the Basic Law, a mini-constitution that guarantees a “high degree of autonomy” for Hong Kong’s internal affairs.
On Sunday, the pro-Beijing group rallied in downtown Hong Kong with what local police said was a crowd of 110,600 people at its peak, though researchers at the University of Hong Kong estimated that between 79,000 and 88,000 participated. The university estimated the July 1 pro-democracy march drew between 154,000 and 172,000 protesters.
The next test will come later this month when China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress, issues its position on democracy in Hong Kong, which is expected to all eligible residents to vote, but only for approved candidates.
The anti-Occupy Central campaign’s focus on the impact of civil disobedience has appealed to the pragmatism of many Hong Kong people. While many support democracy, they also just want to live their lives and go to work unimpeded.
Thousands marched in Hong Kong on Sunday in opposition of the Occupy Central movement.
“I don’t care if you want democracy, even if you protest and have demonstrations. But why do you have to stop people from making a living?” said
a taxi driver, referring to the Occupy movement.
Despite Occupy’s threats, lawmakers and political analysts expect the National People’s Congress to require prospective nominees to overcome a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
“We can’t be optimistic at all—the pro-Beijing camp will control the entire list of candidates,” said
a political-science professor and convener of the Alliance for True Democracy, a coalition of democratic parties supporting Occupy Central.
“This is our worst fear, our worst-case scenario,” he said.
In a last-ditch attempt to negotiate,
chairwoman of the Democratic Party, and other pro-democracy legislators met Friday with Beijing’s top representative in Hong Kong, but they left with no clear promises from the Chinese government.
“We left him under no illusions,” said Ms. Lau. “We will under no circumstances accept an electoral method that is fake and dressed up as one person, one vote.”
Demonstrators carried a Chinese national flag during a rally Sunday in Hong Kong. Pro-Beijing groups mobilized thousands for a march to oppose Occupy Central, a group that has threatened mass civil disobedience if China doesn’t offer the city a real choice in the next election for its leader.
To achieve universal suffrage in 2017, the Hong Kong government must broker a reform package that will garner both the support of Beijing and two-thirds of the Hong Kong legislature. The government’s final proposal is expected to be released at the end of the year.
Universal suffrage for the chief executive was codified in Hong Kong’s de facto constitution. But so was a nominating committee to select candidates for office. Occupy Central demands that the committee won’t be able to screen candidates for political reasons.
Organizers of the Occupy campaign recognize that garnering support for civil disobedience is an uphill battle. Some moderate democrats have already signaled that they may be willing to accept a compromise that would keep Beijing’s plan intact.
Still, pro-democracy activists hope that the democrats will stay united and reject any electoral reforms that include political screening.
“Hong Kong people don’t want North Korean-style democracy,” said
the 17 year-old convener of Scholarism, in reference to illiberal elections with severe candidate restrictions. The high-school activist group gained attention in its role to scuttle plans to impose pro-Chinese patriotism classes in local schools in 2012.
“If we are buying fruit, don’t give us three rotten oranges to choose from,” he said.
—Chester Yung contributed to this article.