Cash, Shopping, and Free Dim Sum Brought Pro-Beijing Protestors to Hong Kong

 Hong Kong's silent democratic opposition has finally spoken up. Or has it?

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Ready for lunch. (Reuters//Liau Chung-ren)

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents marched yesterday to show their opposition to a pro-democracy movement threatening to bring the city’s financial district to a standstill if genuine elections aren't allowed in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. The demonstration is evidence, organizers and lawmakers said, that Hong Kong's silent majority has finally spoken up.

Pro-Beijing protesters march in the streets to demonstrate against a pro-democracy Occupy Central campaign in Hong Kong on Aug. 17. (Reuters/Tyrone Siu)
The group that organized Sunday’s demonstration, the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, says it has collected 1.4 million signatures for a petition against Occupy Central, a group promising to demonstrate if a proposal for election reform from Beijing doesn’t meet international standards for universal suffrage. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

Or have they? Indeed, plenty of local Hong Kongers (paywall) are concerned by the disruptions an occupation of the city’s financial district could bring and doubt the use of widespread pro-democracy protests, promoted by a group called Occupy Central, in the face of Beijing’s growing influence. But those concerned citizens weren't necessarily the ones out on the streets this weekend.

Many of the protesters appeared to have been bused in from mainland China by groups like China's government-affiliated Federation of Trade Unions or the Hong Kong Livestock Industry Association. Some protesters, including many elderly, said their transportation to the rally was provided for, or seemed to have no idea what the protest was against when questioned by reporters.

Others appear to have been paid to participate: a WhatsApp message seen by Reuters offered potential participants HK$350 ($45 U.S.) for attending the rally for five hours. Hong Kong’s Cable TV filmed demonstrators on a bus receiving cash from organizers. Some told local media that they had been pressured by their employees to demonstrate, while others said they had come mainly for the shopping. Some of Hong Kong’s thousands of domestic helpers were also enlisted, and reportedly paid between HK$200 to HK$300 for their attendance.

Even with these incentives, the turnout was likely smaller than a pro-democracy demonstration on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China, according to some outside estimates. Hong Kong University estimates that at most 88,000 people took part on Sunday, but the police say that 110,800 people attended, more than the 98,000 that police believe attended the July 1st protest. But photos of the two events show vastly less dense crowds at yesterday’s protest (Sunday’s photo is on the bottom):

Nonetheless, China's state-run news wire Xinhua reported over 190,000 people attended the march.

A race held earlier Sunday morning to oppose Occupy Central was expected to attract 10,000 people but fewer than 900 people attended. According to Paul Yip, a professor at Hong Kong University’s department of social work and administration, many demonstrators, left the rally at its starting point at Victoria Park or took the subway to downtown Hong Kong to rejoin the march near the end.

Occupy Central supporters shout at pro-Beijing protesters as they march in the streets to demonstrate against a pro-democracy Occupy Central campaign in Hong Kong on Aug. 17 (Reuters/Tyrone Siu)

Some of the march’s participants may have been lured more by the prospect of free lunch than protecting stability in Hong Kong. Local Hong Kong families were turned away from dim sum restaurants near the march’s start, where the demonstrations organizers had booked dozens of tables for sponsored lunches.

Robert Chow, spokesman for the alliance, compared the restaurant bookings to the churches that packed lunches for Martin Luther King’s civil rights march in Washington in 1963. Chow said,”If there’s an organization gathering 2,000 people, if they say let's gather at a restaurant … what's wrong with that?”

This post originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic partner site.

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About the Author

  • Lily Kuo is a reporter at Quartz covering emerging markets.