BBC News

Were some Hong Kong marchers paid?

By Juliana Liu
Hong Kong correspondent, BBC News

image copyrightEPA
image captionTens of thousands of people joined Sunday's march, though exact estimates vary

Boisterous demonstrations are a feature of life in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese city that enjoys the freedom of speech and assembly.

Citizens tend to be extremely politically savvy, as well as practical.

That's why rallies tend to take place on Sundays and public holidays, when most people have time off.

The general public, from the very young to the elderly, also seem to be impervious to extreme heat and rain, turning up to march for miles despite inclement weather.

In recent years, the larger protests, the ones drawing thousands and even tens of thousands of participants, have tended to be organised by groups that, broadly speaking, fall under the pan-democratic political umbrella.

Anyone attending those rallies can usually expect to see:

1. Young participants: Recent rallies have been family affairs. But on the whole, the demographic skews toward people under 40.

2. Loss of mobile phone coverage: Mobile signals weaken considerably along the route. Everyone is too busy posting on social media sites.

3. Spotless routes: Public etiquette dictates no rubbish be left behind.

But Sunday's rally has upended the usual script for Hong Kong demonstrations.

Organised by the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, it was the biggest pro-China demonstration for many years.

The turnout was large, with estimates ranging from 40,000 to more than 250,000 people.

image copyrightReuters
image captionSome supporters of the protest turned up with Chinese flags

Though some youngsters came with their parents, the crowd was largely middle-aged and elderly. They were mobilised by dozens of pro-China organisations.

There was no issue with mobile coverage during the rally, as few people used smartphones.

Afterward, paper flowers, flags and other demonstration materials were found strewn on the streets.

Paid to march?

But the biggest difference from previous protests was a flurry of accusations from media outlets - including Ming Pao, RTHK, ATV, TVB, Now TV, Oriental Daily News and Apple Daily - that organisers had hired marchers.

They report some had been paid between HK$200 ($26, £15) to HK$800 for turning up.

In a televised report from news channel Cable TV, a reporter and camera operator went undercover, joining members of a youth group that collected marchers from a Hong Kong suburb.

After boarding a bus, the demonstrators, including the journalists, each received a payment of HK$250. They were instructed not to mention having received any money.

In its report, Cable TV said it had found out about the payment offer online.

Leo Wong, an assignment editor for Cable TV, told me this was the first time the channel had sent reporters to attend a political demonstration in exchange for money.

"We heard about it, so we went to check it out, out of curiosity. We didn't make it up, out of our imagination," he said. "We think many people in Hong Kong received this kind of message."

He added he would have been just as willing to send reporters to verify similar offers made by pro-democracy groups.

Cable TV is not known for a strong pan-democratic bias. It is owned by Wharf Holdings, a business conglomerate whose chairman is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to China's parliament.

A spokesman for the Alliance for Peace Democracy has disputed the Cable TV report, calling it erroneous, even as he admitted that the contents of another Cable TV report, in which participants were allegedly given HK$380, were true.

'Mobilised by conscience'

Organisers have lauded the protest as an opportunity for normally apolitical citizens to speak up against the civil disobedience movement called Occupy Central.

But the reports of hired demonstrators have caused Sunday's rally to be labelled "ridiculous" and "nonsensical" on social media.

Johnson Yeung, one of the organisers of the recent 1 July pro-democracy demonstration, called the most recent protest a "tragedy".

"We can see that in our past experience, the people who joined the rallies were mobilised by themselves, by their own conscience, not by their organisations or community groups," he said.

Mr Yeung said Occupy Central would not be swayed by the pro-China demonstration, and would most likely begin their campaign in mid-September, organising yet another kind of political rally for the Hong Kong public.

Related Topics

  • China
  • Hong Kong

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