• World
  • Hong Kong

Hong Kong Protesters Try to Drum Up Support Among Mainland Chinese Tourists

6 minute read

In their first major protest since an unprecedented break-in at the government complex last week, tens of thousands of Hong Kong demonstrators marched to a controversial railway terminus Sunday in a symbolic attempt to bring their grievances to Beijing’s doorstep. As the day drew to a close, the peaceful protest once again culminated in a late-night confrontation with riot police who arrived en masse shortly after 10 p.m.

The holdout protesters still gathered on the streets were declared an “illegal assembly” and police repeatedly warned them to disperse or force could be used. At least two arrests were caught on livefeeds from the scene, but protesters mostly retreated as columns of police advanced to clear the area.

Earlier in the day, organizers estimated 230,000 people attended a march billed as an opportunity to take the month-long protest movement into a new neighborhood and engage with mainland Chinese visitors to the city. Police said the crowd size maxed out at 56,000.

While the previous anti-government protests have mostly converged near the city’s political center, Sunday’s march hopped across the harbor for an inaugural rally in Kowloon, a peninsula connected to the mainland. The afternoon’s route forged through the heart of the Chinese tourist district and ended at a high-speed train that links the territory to the rest of China.

As they snaked through mega-malls and high-end hotels, protesters said they aimed to win over residents of the mainland, where news coverage has mostly been limited to state media’s anti-protester invectives.

“What little the mainland people might know about these demonstrations is incorrect,” Cherry Chow, a 21-year-old student, tells TIME. Chinese media, she said, paints a picture of violence and chaos. “They don’t show that most of us are actually peaceful.”

Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese enclave, has been seized by a spiraling political crisis this summer that kicked off over legislation that would have allowed extraditions to the mainland. The proposed law inflamed fears about the former British colony’s freedoms and independent judiciary—protected after its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997—and also underscored the depth of anxiety over its relationship to Beijing.

Massive protests, which drew up to two million people, forced the government to suspend the bill. But the move did little to pacify public anger. Protesters’ initial demands for the outright cancellation of the bill and for the city’s unelected, Beijing-backed leader to step down have since swelled into broader aspirations for genuine democracy, with some even agitating for independence from China.

As marchers gathered at a park along the harbor-front Sunday, their demands included a call for universal suffrage, and some waved banners that said, “Dissolve the communist party, return my Hong Kong.”

Read more: ‘We Are Risking Everything.’ Hong Kong’s Young Rebels Stake Everything on Their Struggle

Protesters carried brochures in the simplified Chinese used on the mainland, while giving loudspeaker speeches that targeted Mandarin-speaking visitors, as opposed to the Cantonese-speaking locals. In front of a mall, protesters stopped to sing China’s national anthem and urged shoppers to join in the march. Some held up signs with QR codes scannable by apps popular on the mainland and linking to info on the protests.

“By spreading this message for [mainlanders] to bring back home, they will talk amongst themselves, and some will come to understand our point of view,” says a 22-year-old student who asked to be identified by the initials W.K. Defying Beijing’s heavy-handed censorship and educating citizens about the unrest may add pressure on the Chinese government “to change their policy towards Hong Kong,” he added.

Normally packed with suitcase-totting travelers, the commercial mecca was uncharacteristically quiet until the marchers rolled through, chanting their demands while cooling themselves with fans calling for “Democracy NOW!” Pharmacies, clothing outlets and eateries continued business as usual, though several mainland tour groups had previously announced they would not be stopping by the retail zone while protesters descended on the area.

Some visitors TIME spoke with said they were unaware of the protests roiling Hong Kong in recent weeks.

“I have no idea what’s going on,” said a mainland student observing the march and who asked to be identified only as Z. “[Seeing this many people] makes me kind of scared. I’m worried that violence might break out.”

Tom, a 24-year-old protester who works in engineering, said the march presented an opportunity to give mainland tourists a taste of the freedoms that distinguish Hong Kong as China’s freest city.

“We want them to know [people can] peacefully to express their demands in a place where there is still freedom because there’s no such opportunity for them…on the mainland,” he says.

Before marchers arrived at the designated end point, the new, multi-billion-dollar West Kowloon station, police walled off the facility with large barricades. Local media reported that ticket sales were suspended for the afternoon. The station, which opened in September, courted controversy after part of it was leased to Beijing and subject to Chinese jurisdiction, effectively allowing Chinese police to operate on Hong Kong soil and setting off alarms over Beijing’s encroachment.

Anti-China tensions peaked on July 1, the 22nd anniversary of the territory’s retrocession to the mainland. While hundreds of thousands of protesters staged an annual, peaceful march, their event was overshadowed when a separate, smaller group smashed their way through the legislative council’s fortified glass and vandalized the building. The enraged protesters covered the meeting chamber with graffiti, overturned cabinets and tore up Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. They also blacked out the part of the city’s official emblem that says “China” while leaving the part that says Hong Kong visible.

Beijing has accused the protesters of “atrocities” and instructed the city’s leadership to pursue criminal charges. A wave of arrests followed the break-in.

In a bid to reframe the protest narrative, organizers of Sunday’s march reiterated calls for a peaceful day and said there was no intention of staying and occupying the train station after the march finished.

“We are the most elegant protesters on the earth. Please protect this elegance today,” organizer Ventus Lau said at the outset.

—With reporting by Kamakshi Ayyar, Laignee Barron and Hillary Leung / Hong Kong

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com