HONG KONG – Only after finding safety in numbers, joining hundreds of other pro-government protesters in Hong Kong on Saturday, did Reddy Lin drum up the courage to slip into her red T-shirt marked, “China, I love you” and glue a heart-shaped Chinese-flag sticker on her face.
But for the train ride home, the teacher said she'd be taking all her pro-China garb off again. The risk of running into supporters from the rival camp, those who oppose China's communist rulers, was simply too great, she said.
“It's very dangerous. They'll beat you,” she said. “They're brutes.”
Lin and hundreds of other protesters waving red Chinese flags packed a Hong Kong park to vociferously denounce what they say is a reign of terror being imposed on the city by months of anti-government demonstrations. The protest highlighted the widening gulf between the pro- and anti-government camps in Hong Kong, with divisions that appear irreconcilable.
Compared to the hundreds of anti-government rallies that have gripped Hong Kong since June, the pro-China demonstration was like stepping through a looking glass. The Hong Kong police were praised as saviors, not bullies. China was presented as a country to love, not fear. Hong Kong was described as a city freer than most, instead of a place losing its liberties.
Chief among the demonstrators' 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've been deemed by mobs to be unsympathetic to the anti-government movement, including a man who was doused with inflammable 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."
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 fifties, had ever taken part in a protest. Angie Choi carried a poster marked: “Extreme rioters. Hong Kong suffers.”
Lin, the civics teacher who traveled from the neighboring 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'll mail to the territory's much-maligned police force.
“They are working very hard,” she said. Lin said 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 recognized 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 of police behavior features among the anti-government movement's main demands.
Hong Kong's new police commissioner, Chris Tang, said Saturday in Beijing that he'll adopt both "hard and soft approaches” for policing protests. He spoke after his first meetings with Chinese officials since his appointment last month.
Hurling gasoline 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 Sunday of the anti-government movement that will offer a fresh gauge of its appeal and ability to continue mobilizing support.
At the pro-government rally, some demonstrators said they don't 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 furled and put away their Chinese flags and peeled off red stickers they'd been wearing, for fear of running into opponents on their rides 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.”