HONG KONG — Six months ago, over a million people in Hong Kong marched through the city in what became the start of a sustained pro-democracy movement against Beijing’s tightening grip.

On Sunday, they did it again.

At least 800,000 people, according to organizers, showed up in the same park, waving signs calling for the end of Chinese Communist Party rule and for the Hong Kong government to meet protesters’ four existing demands. The march, which was approved by authorities, was one of the biggest peaceful protests seen in the city for months and underscores the strong support that still exists for greater democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, despite a crackdown that has seen police fire over 10,000 tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and arrest some 6,000 people.

It was also an indication that increased violence by protesters that reached a peak in November has not deterred the “wo, lei, fei” – the peaceful, reasonable and nonviolent protesters – who continue to demonstrate in solidarity with the more radical front-liners.

“We want to show that the spirit of Hong Kong people is the same, that it won’t change despite all the actions done by the police and the government to stop us and suppress us,” said Mike Cheung, a 25-year old protester standing in Victoria Park waiting for the growing crowd to begin their march. “We still have hope, no matter what.”

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Pro-democracy protesters flash their smartphone lights as they gather Sunday in Hong Kong. Thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday in a march seen as a test of the enduring appeal of an anti-government movement about to mark a half year of demonstrations. Vincent Yu/Associated Press

The first weeks of November saw the protest movement reach a dangerous new level as protesters tried to hold two university campuses against police incursions, leading to a siege with huge amounts of force used by both sides. Protesters rained down petrol bombs on police, who in turn fired tear gas for hours and threatened to use live rounds against protesters.

But the movement in recent weeks scored two key victories: a resounding vote of confidence at the ballot box with pro-democracy parties winning a huge majority of seats in local elections, and the passage of a U.S. bill that would open those who restrict Hong Kong’s freedoms to sanctions.

The Hong Kong government formally withdrew in October the legislation that would allow extraditions to mainland China, a proposal which kicked off the protests back in June. But it has made no indication that it will meet any of the other demands of protesters, which include an independent investigation into police conduct and the long-held goal of direct elections for Hong Kong leaders.

A 23-year old protester, who wanted to only be referred to by her first name Violet for fear of repercussions from her employer, said she has often been discouraged by the futility of mass demonstrations like Sunday’s.

“Sometimes it almost feels like we are Sisyphus trying to push the rock up the mountain, even though it keeps rolling back on us,” Violet said. But, she added, “being here is the right thing to do.”

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A pro-democracy protester wears a Guy Fawkes mask as protesters gather Sunday in Hong Kong. Vincent Thian/Associated Press

In contrast to the tensions that have marked protests for months, the crowd gathered in Victoria Park was almost festive, showing off artistically-designed posters portraying the flash-points over the past six months. Several groups gave out Christmas cards to attendees, asking them to write a message of support to the dozens of detained protesters who have been denied bail and are held in detention centers.

“Even though it is the festive season, we have to remember our brothers and sisters still in jail and tell them that we remember their sacrifices,” said Christine Chan, 23, as she handed out the cards and colored pens.

But by night, small groups of protesters had set up barricades in front of lines of riot police. Graffiti marked almost the entire route of the march. A few businesses perceived to be pro-Beijing and Chinese banks were vandalized, as was the territory’s High Court.

The rally was organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, the same group that organized the earlier marches that drew millions of people. Ahead of the protest, CHRF urged demonstrators to remain peaceful, a hallmark of their rallies. The group said it had timed their march for international Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.

“The human rights violations and humanitarian crisis in Hong Kong and China are reaching a tipping point now,” the group said, expressing solidarity with the Muslim Uighur minority who have been placed in mass detention camps in western China. “Our rally today is to gather everyone in Hong Kong to defend our city, as well as (to advance) the international human rights movement.”

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Pro-democracy protesters flash their smartphone lights Sunday on a street in Hong Kong. Vincent Yu/Associated Press

American support for the protest movement has been viewed by Beijing as a deliberate provocation, and Chinese authorities have accused “foreign actors” of stoking the flames of unrest in Hong Kong to destabilize China. On Monday, China said it would sanction U.S.-based nonprofits including the National Endowment for Democracy and Human Rights Watch in retaliation for the pro-Hong Kong legislation.

“They bear great responsibility for the current chaos in Hong Kong,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. “These organizations deserve to be sanctioned, and they must pay the price for it.”

Those statements appeared to have little connection with the scenes on Sunday, however.

By nightfall, Hong Kong people of all ages continued to make their way from the park – more than three hours after the march began – filling the streets with chants of “Five Demands, Not One Less!”

“We know that achieving democracy takes a very long time, especially since we are against the biggest dictator in the world right now,” added Violet. “But most of us have made ourselves ready for a long fight.”


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