Hundreds of protesters waving red Chinese flags have packed a Hong Kong park to denounce what they say is a reign of terror being imposed by rioters who have smashed shops and other targets during months of anti-government demonstrations that have shaken the city.
The rally on Saturday underlined the deep divisions that have opened up in Hong Kong between pro- and anti-government camps, with divisions that appear irreconcilable.
Unlike anti-government protesters, pro-government demonstrators praised Hong Kong police and signed “Thank you” letters for officers.
Leaving the rally, many rolled up their Chinese flags, saying they were afraid of being attacked on their way home.
The pro-China demonstration praised Hong Kong police as saviours, not bullies; China was presented as a country to love, not fear; and Hong Kong was described as a city freer than most, instead of a place losing its liberties.
Chief among the protesters’ complaints was that they have grown scared of the black-clad, frequently violent hard core of the anti-government movement.
Calling them “rioters”, many said hard-line protesters are destroying Hong Kong’s freedoms, rather than protecting them, by resorting to violence.
In chants, the crowd called anti-government protesters “cockroaches”.
Photos displayed at the rally showed the bloodied faces of people who have been attacked during protests. They have included people who have been deemed by mobs to be unsympathetic to the anti-government movement, including a man who was doused with flammable liquid and set on fire last month.
“They destroy everything,” fumed Tata Tsg, a retiree at the rally who said she is now too scared to go out in the evenings. “Those bastards have freedom, I have no freedom.”
Ms Tsg and two friends who joined her, sisters Angie and Winnie Choi, said it marked the first time that any of them, all in their 50s, had ever taken part in a protest.
Angie Choi carried a poster marked: “Extreme rioters. Hong Kong suffers.”
Lin, a civics teacher who travelled from the neighbouring Chinese city of Shenzhen for the protest in a small square amid Hong Kong tower blocks, collected hundreds of signatures for “Thank you” letters she said she will mail to the territory’s much-maligned police force.
“They are working very hard,” she said.
She added that her 20-year-old son, who studies at a Hong Kong university, was too afraid to join her at the demonstration, scared that he might be recognised by classmates and “be beaten”.
The police force has become hated by many anti-government protesters, furious over riot officers’ liberal use of choking tear gas and thousands of often muscular arrests. A call for an independent probe into police behaviour is among the anti-government movement’s main demands.
Hong Kong’s new police commissioner, Chris Tang, said on Saturday in Beijing that he will adopt both “hard and soft approaches” for policing protests. He spoke after his first meetings with Chinese officials since his appointment last month.
Throwing petrol bombs or stones are “violent actions we will not tolerate”, he said. “But for other incidents, such as protesters walking off-road or other minor incidents, we will take humanistic and flexible approaches.”
Those pledges will be tested by a rally on Sunday of the anti-government movement which will offer a fresh gauge of its appeal and ability to continue mobilising support.
At the pro-government rally, some demonstrators said they do not feel great admiration for embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam or her Communist Party bosses in Beijing but feel such great anger about protest violence that they had to turn out.
But leaving the rally, many demonstrators put away their Chinese flags and peeled off red stickers they had been wearing for fear of running into opponents on the journey home.
“Who is more scary: the communists or the rioters?” said retiree Peter Pang. “I don’t like the government very much but I don’t like rioters even more.”