29 February 2020
Hong Kong's streets were filled with white shirt-clad anti-government protesters on June 9, but estimates of the crowd size varied widely depending on who you asked. Photo: Reuters
Hong Kong's streets were filled with white shirt-clad anti-government protesters on June 9, but estimates of the crowd size varied widely depending on who you asked. Photo: Reuters

Protest marches: The numbers game

Chief Executive Carrie Lam is stubbornly refusing to walk back her extradition bill despite the huge protest march by citizens, but she was honest enough to acknowledge the scale of the Sunday demonstration, referring to “many people”.

Now, we come to the question: Just how many were the “many”, and what exactly was the turnout figure at the anti-fugitive bill rally?

Was it more than a million as the organizer boasted, or over 500,000 as some media reports suggested, or was it just about 240,000 as the police claimed? 

Deplorably, neither the event organizer — Civil Human Rights Front — nor the police cared to explain how they came up with their estimates, resulting in a situation where there is no consensus on the number of people who turned up on the streets.

Well, this has been the same case if we look back at various public demonstrations in the city over the years, starting from the July 1 demonstration in 2003 against a proposed national security law.

Talking about the latest rally, the organizer claimed that as many as 1.03 million people poured into the streets (a former Legco member went further, floating a figure of 1.5 million), giving an estimate that was more than four times larger than the police estimate.

The vast difference in the figures boggles the mind, given that we are talking about over one tenth of the city’s population who might or might not have been there.

Both the organizers and the police reported the numbers as they pleased, apparently using different yardsticks to assess the turnout at the protest march. Among the various criteria seemingly used for determining the numbers was how many were at the starting point and how many had joined later. 

While some people always start at Victoria Park, there are many others who jump into the queue at other locations along the route.

It’s not only the numbers from the organizers and the police that we have to contend with, there are figures bandied out by independent observers and academics.

For the Sunday march, former University of Science and Technology economics professor Frances Lui, for instance, offered an estimate of 199,000, basing his crowd-size calculation on the three-kilometer length of the road from Victoria Park to Tamar and the 10 meter width.

Unfortunately, that only accounted for a specific time, not the three to six hours walk that most protesters put in on Sunday.

The pro-government academician, it must be said, doesn’t have a good track record on numbers, having offered in the past somewhat fancy projections on topics such as economic loss from Occupy Central and potential damage the city would suffer were it to lose its special trade status.

Because no one comes up with a convincing explanation to back up their claims, your guess is just as good as mine when it comes to putting a figure on crowd participation during major events.

With the widely different projections from the organizers and the police, perhaps it may be a good idea to take the average of the two numbers.

A close estimate of the number of protesters could be based on the increased traffic witnessed by MTR on the day of the protest, as rail was the main mode of transport for people to reach the protest route due to road traffic disturbances.

A friend told me that MTR had an additional half a million passengers on Sunday. On top of that number you would factor in the tens of thousands of white shirt-clad people that arrived by ferries, buses and on foot, and you may get an approximate turnout figure.

That said, there is good reason to believe that Sunday’s rally was the largest of its kind since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.

And there could be even bigger things in the coming months if Lam continues to dismiss the public’s concerns and keeps doing Beijing’s bidding on sensitive social and political matters.  

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EJ Insight writer