Hong Kong handover anniversary marked by protests

Activists demand democracy 20 years after transfer of territory from Britain to China

An activist argues with the police during a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. Photograph: Roman Pilipey/EPA

Hong Kong marked 20 years since the handover of power over the territory from Britain to China on Saturday with a spectacular fireworks display in Victoria Harbour.

However, as celebrations took place, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Victoria Park in the Causeway Bay district to demand more democracy for Hong Kong. Organisers said 60,000 people attended, while the police said the figure was much lower.

Many in the park were sombre after a speech by Chinese president Xi Jinping in which he warned democracy supporters against crossing "a red line" and undermining Beijing's authority.

Fireworks explode over Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover of the territory from Britain to China. Photograph: Dale de la Rey/AFP/Getty Images

“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government and the authority of the Basic Law of the HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible,” Mr Xi said in his speech.


“On the other hand, on the basis of ‘one country’, the ‘two systems’ should and have every reason to stay in harmony and reinforce each other,” he said.

Mr Xi also spoke of the “humiliation and sorrow” that China suffered during the first Opium War in the 19th-century, which led to Hong Kong becoming a British colony. The speech was made during Mr Xi’s first visit to the territory as president.

Demonstrators at the park held banners that read “One country, two systems, a cheating for 20 years” and attacked Chinese communist rule.

“Cry in grief for 20 years!” read another banner at the rally.

Victoria Park is where the Goddess of Democracy statue, the symbol of the democracy movement that was destroyed in 1989 on Tiananmen Square, is placed every year on June 4th to mark the anniversary of that crackdown.

Cancelled rally

The heavy rain meant a planned rally outside Hong Kong government headquarters at Tamar had to be called off, and the turnout for the demonstration was lower than in previous years, organisers said.

Some of the demonstrators carried yellow umbrellas, which have been the symbol of the pro-democracy campaign in Hong Kong since the Umbrella Movement protests of 2014, when demonstrators occupied the Central business district and parts of Kowloon.

Alex Yau, a teacher, said Hong Kongers now had no choice but to listen to what China says.

“Hong Kong has declined. Hong Kong culture has changed. We’ve become more China but we’re not the Hong Kong of 20 years ago,” said Mr Yau.

“It’s very complicated. On the one side we are China, but we are also Hong Kongers. Our bargain with China is very complicated. I treat Xi Jinping as a guest, as a very honoured guest, but he is not my leader,” said Mr Yau.

Near the site of the demonstration, the Hong Kong government had organised an exhibition that highlighted China’s achievements in space travel.

One middle-aged resident said he had found the military display last week, when the Chinese president inspected thousands of People’s Liberation Army troops at Hong Kong’s Shek Kong barracks, quite remarkable.

The parade resembled military events in Beijing, with Mr Xi standing to attention in an open-topped jeep and shouting "Comrades, you are diligent and hard-working" at the troops.

“It reminded me of China, not Hong Kong,” he said.

He was also surprised by the announcement by the Chinese foreign ministry on Friday that the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the blueprint for how the territory would be ruled after 1997, was a historical document that no longer had any practical significance.


Under the Basic Law constitution, Hong Kong is guaranteed autonomy “for 50 years no change” after 1997, under a “one country, two systems” model.

One of the leaders of the pro-democracy protests was Joshua Wong, whose political party Demosisto is calling for greater autonomy and more democracy for Hong Kong.

He was detained by police earlier in the week when he tried to cover a statue of the bauhinia flower, Hong Kong’s symbol, with black cloth, and he was detained again over the weekend.

He said the police had threatened his group earlier in the day and tried to stop them protesting.

“The statement of the Hong Kong police force deliberately neglected the fact that peaceful protesters were unreasonably forced into the police car and assaulted,” Mr Wong said.

Mr Xi also inaugurated Carrie Lam as chief executive of Hong Kong during his visit.

Roads were blocked to stop pro-democracy protesters from gaining access to the waterfront venue where the event was held, the same place where the last British governor, Chris Patten, handed back Hong Kong to China in heavy rain in 1997.