Hong Kong’s million-person march in a downpour Sunday likely marks a turning point in the almost three-month-long standoff with the city’s administration.

Harder to discern is exactly which direction it will go from here.

“What we want is a dialogue with [Hong Kong chief executive] Carrie Lam, not many more weeks of protests,” said Bonnie Leung of Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front, the group that has organized the city’s best attended pro-democracy rallies since the beginning of June, including the most recent event on Sunday.

“This campaign is very important to us. It’s basic human rights. We simply must soldier on,” she told CBC News.

At a news conference Monday in Hong Kong, other organizers emphasized that the peaceful nature of the rally provides an opening for Hong Kong’s government to respond. If the city administration chooses not to, implicit was the suggestion that the demonstrations would continue and the risk of more violence would be heightened.

China likens protesters to ‘rioters’

On Sunday night after the protests, many younger demonstrators — clad in black and sporting gas masks — blocked streets outside police headquarters in the city’s Central district. However, protest leaders with megaphones urged the crowd to disperse, saying they didn’t want Sunday’s peaceful rally to be marred by any late-night encounters, and people eventually melted into the nearby metro station without incident.

One of the complaints of the protesters is the heavy-handed use of tear gas by police: they claim that almost 2,000 canisters have been fired at them and that police have aggravated the situation by their heavy-handed tactics.

In mainland China, on the other hand, it’s commonplace for state media to liken the behaviour of the Hong Kong protesters to “rioters.” Leung says since the worst of the violent incidents at the city’s international airport last week, the demonstrators have stepped back and shown restraint.

“People are angry about police using excessive force again and again, so if an independent inquiry can at least be set up, the protesters will be calmed down more.”

The pro-democracy movement has made a list of demands of Hong Kong’s leadership, including universal suffrage for Hong Kong, the end of the extradition bill, the release of arrested protesters and a probe into police brutality.

In the aftermath of the rally, the demand for an independent inquiry into police actions was being held out as the one concession most easily acceptable by Hong Kong’s administration.

‘The beginning of the end’

Still, one veteran of the Hong Kong–China relationship told us he believes the most likely outcome now is that the pro-democracy protests will quickly run out of steam.

“We are seeing the beginning of the end,” said Prof. Lau Siu-Kai of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Lau, now 72, has more than four decades of experience advising Beijing on matters involving Hong Kong and was a key player in the transfer of power between Britain and China in 1997. “Eventually the deadlock will disappear because people [protesters] will seek other means of putting pressure on the government.”

A protester, wearing an eye patch to show solidarity with a woman reportedly injured in the eye by a beanbag fired by police, takes part in the rally in Hong Kong on Sunday. (Vincent Thian/Associated Press)

He says upcoming municipal elections this fall may prove to be a more tempting battleground for the pro-democracy movement, as they attempt to unseat China-friendly incumbents.

Whatever course the protesters take, he says several of their demands are so toxic to Beijing that there is zero chance they would ever be met, no matter what external pressure is applied.

‘The government has already surrendered’

Chief among those, he says, is a direct challenge to the leadership of Lam.

“Beijing cannot allow or tolerate any government in Hong Kong [that] preaches against China or against the Chinese communist party,” said Lau.

A canopy of umbrellas hangs over the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Long on Sunday. One professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong says the protesters have already won a victory of sorts. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

However, he concedes the protesters have also achieved a victory of sorts by forcing the withdrawal of the so-called extradition bill. It may not be the total disavowal of the legislation the protesters wanted, but he argues its not insignificant.

Critics feared the legislation would have allowed China’s justice system to reach into Hong Kong and violated the principles of “one country, two systems” that was the basis of the 1997 handover agreement with Britain.

“I would think in some ways the government has already surrendered,” said Lau.

Many grievances

One of the few things both sides agree on is that, with Sunday’s peaceful protest, the likelihood of a significant intervention by Chinese troops or police has diminished.

The spectre of mainland police and armoured personnel carriers parked just across the border in Shenzhen has loomed over the city for the past week.

“Beijing does not see [the] Hong Kong situation as out of control,” said Lau. “The number of violent people is a very limited number; as far as I can see it’s about 1,000 to 2,000 people. And now some of the real leaders have been arrested by the police.”

Still, even if the street protests die down and the pro-democracy movement takes a breather, he believes the conflicts have clearly highlighted significant cleavages in the city that Hong Kong’s leadership will have to address.

“There are a lot of grievances in Hong Kong — political, social, and economic.”

The turmoil has left the Beijing and Hong Kong governments “more determined than ever” to make changes, particularly regarding the lack of opportunity for young people, he said.