The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has gained momentum at a steady pace throughout the summer. An unofficial referendum on the right to nominate the city's next leader received nearly 800,000 votes, and an estimated half a million people marched for universal suffrage, democracy and autonomy from China on July 1 (though police put attendance at 98,000).
Pro-Beijing groups and others opposed to pro-democracy protesters’ tactics have been keen to match their level of mobilization. A special coalition formed to do just that says tens of thousands rallied on Aug. 17 against plans to occupy the former British colony's financial district to call for an election free of China's influence.
But despite the coalition's claims that their rally outnumbered July 1′s, photos taken by various online news outlets seemed to show the opposite. Mainstream media and citizen media also reported that some protesters were given 300 to 400 Hong Kong dollars (about 38 to 50 U.S. dollars) in cash and treated to a restaurant meal for attending.
At the heart of the issue is the city's chief executive election in 2017. Beijing has promised Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, a direct vote for the first time, but insists that a nominating committee filter out any unsavory candidates. Hong Kong's own government consultation report on electoral reform suggested that the number of candidates be restricted to two or three, implying that the committee would screen candidates before the public has a chance to cast their ballots.
Occupy Central With Love and Peace intends to stage a massive sit-in to demand that citizens be allowed to nominate candidates. Those opposed fear the action will result in chaos and destroy business. The pro-government coalition says they have collected 1.2 million signatures against their plans.
Hong Kong police put the number of people gathered on Aug. 17 at the assembly spot at 110,000, while the coalition says more than 1,500 organizations and 250,000 protesters participated. Before the rally, many netizens said that they received text messages from various organizations that they would receive a cash reward for attending the pro-government protest.
Organizers denounced the messages as “rumors” spread by the opposition. Blogger Erynnyes from “Those Were the Days” collected reports from mainstream media about the alleged payments:
[The reports that I quoted] are not coming from the so-called pro-democracy media. And yet they all have stories about paying protesters and serving protesters restaurant meals in order to increase the head count?
I do not oppose the anti-Occupy Central rally. However, if you want to mobilize people to support a political cause, please don't use money and meals as incentive. Such a rally not only insults Hong Kong people, but those who genuinely support the political cause of the rally.
Shopping “protesters” and tricked models
Cash rewards and free food weren't the only ways organizers allegedly enticed people to join the rally. Various media outlets found mainland Chinese tourists gathered at the protest site. Hong Kong Cable TV interviewed one mainland Chinese protester who said that they had come to Hong Kong for shopping. In fact, a large number of “protesters” left after taking the group photos at the gathering spot at Victoria Park without joining the rally.
Coco Cherry, a young artist, said she and her colleagues were tricked by their modeling agency into attending. She explained the situation on Facebook:
其實今日早上進行到一半我已經很生氣地從金鐘地鐵站離開了 由於不想和公司鬧翻 我不等經紀人到就自己走了[...]當剛才看到報導和留言 真的超崩潰 ……不管後果是甚麼 我想讓你們知道真相 ……我回港後和朋友收到的資訊是 : 出席支持我的音樂老師音樂會的奇怪遊行 我承認我過度沉迷在自己的生活 根本全然不知今日是甚麼遊行日 甚至去到現場都還不知甚麼是反佔中 我們幾個女生問了好幾次 都没人答得出 經理人說他也不知道 反正是支持普選瓜[...]我承認我連這種政治都全然不知 真的好錯 …………可是當你在忙這忙哪獨自努力時 公司不只是甚麼忙都没幫還挖這麼大一個坑推我下去……………………我現在好亂 文字根本無法表達: ( 我們根本比同行大陆人 古惑仔 老人家更不堪 我們是一文錢没收像白痴一樣走了半天……………
Angry, I left the rally at Admiralty subway station halfway to the destination. I didn't want to destroy my relationship with the agency, so I left without telling my agent […] after I read the report and the comments, I broke down totally… now I won't stop myself from telling the true anymore. After I returned to Hong Kong [from a show], the message my friends and I received was: We have to attend a rally to support our music teacher. I admit that I am too obsessed with my personal life and pay no attention to the news. I had no idea about this rally or what “anti-Occupy Central” is. We asked our agent many times what the rally was really about. The agent said he had no idea and maybe it was to support universal suffrage […] I admit that I am so wrong to be so ignorant about politics… yet, when you are so busy building up your career, the company is not helping and digging such a big trap for me… I have such complex feelings and cannot express myself clearly in words :( We are worse that our mainland Chinese colleagues, gangsters or old people. We did not receive any money and walked like idiots for half a day…
The above stories not only undermined the credibility of the pro-government rally, as Erynnyes concluded in his blog post. Those who recruited protesters with cash and food have embarrassed other protesters who genuinely support the cause of the rally.