HONG KONG — Boosted by a week that saw sweeping gains for pro-democracy candidates in local elections and President Donald Trump signing legislation backing their cause, thousands of protesters returned to the streets of Hong Kong Sunday.
Protests began early in the Central district at the heart of the global financial hub.
Hundreds marched to the U.S. consulate to show their "gratitude" for the passage of the law supporting human rights in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. They waved American flags, with one banner reading: "President Trump, please liberate Hong Kong."
Trump's decision to sign the legislation, which was approved unanimously by the Senate and by all but one lawmaker in the House last week, drew swift condemnation from Beijing. China condemned the U.S. Thursday for its “stark hegemonic acts” and for interfering in the region’s affairs.
But the majority of demonstrators who gathered Sunday seemed determined to refocus attention on the issues at the heart of the movement that has roiled Hong Kong for months.
Protesters held their palms high in the air as they marched through the the bustling shopping district of Tsim Tsa Tsu, a symbol of their five demands.
Millions initially took to the streets over the summer to protest a controversial extradition bill — since shelved — which became a lightning rod for concerns of Beijing's creeping influence over the former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The amorphous movement has since developed broader calls for greater democracy, such as establishing an independent commission of inquiry into police brutality, amnesty for those arrested during the protests, and universal suffrage.
“The government only responds to one of our demands," said Steven Lee, a 25-year-old engineer who was out on the streets Sunday. "We urge them to answer to our other demands. They just simply insisted that they did nothing wrong,”
During the months of turmoil, police and protesters have been engaging in increasingly violent clashes.
Beijing has steered clear of interfering directly, saying that it trusts Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam to handle the situation. However, the protests have presented Chinese leader Xi Jinping with one of the biggest popular challenges since he came to power in 2012.
Last week's district council elections were widely viewed as an opportunity to measure public opinion on the movement.
The huge 71 percent turnout and wholesale victories for the pro-democracy camp, which took control of at least 17 of the city’s 18 district councils, were thus a stark rebuke to Beijing-backed Lam and her handling of the protests.
“Voting for district councils is solely a small step for us to express our political views," added Lee, who has been participating in the protests since they began in June. "But it’s irrelevant to our demands.”
There has been relative calm in Hong Kong for the past week since the local elections delivered an overwhelming victory for the so-called "pan-democrats."
However, activists pledged to maintain the momentum of the movement with three marches on Sunday.
Police again fired tear gas, they claimed in response to bricks hurled by demonstrators.
“The government didn’t reply to our demands at all. No matter how many weapons they use and how much force they deploy, officials turn a blind to our demands,” said Chan, a clerk in her 40s who declined to give her last name.
“I was happy for 10 seconds after casting my vote last Sunday as I could see so many people lined up outside the polling station. Although the pan-democrats have gained a landslide victory, it doesn’t change the fact that the government is still ignoring us.”
“These young protesters are not the culprits behind the chaos in Hong Kong," said Chan, holding an umbrella and in a black mask — items that have come to characterize the protests.
"I really admire them because they never forget the original faith of the movement, which is to fight for democracy.”