A woman holds a cross and flowers as she sings with protesters on June 11 outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong. Opponents of legislation that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China gathered in several days of mass protests.

Hong Kong’s quiet message to Beijing

If the sheer size of Sunday’s pro-democracy protest was not enough, then other signals from the crowds might persuade China to rethink its growing grip on the semi-autonomous city.

On Sunday, more than a quarter of Hong Kong’s residents, or about 2 million people, were out on the streets to defend the territory’s much-cherished rule of law. It was the third protest in eight days against a proposed extradition treaty sought by China. While Sunday’s protest was the largest since the former colony was handed back by the British in 1997, the size of the crowd was the least of signals sent to Communist leaders in Beijing.

The week of demonstrations included symbols, songs, and a diversity of people rarely seen in previous pro-democracy protests. Not surprising for a city with more than 1,500 churches, the protests were remarkable for their religious themes, aimed at peaceful persuasion instead of violent confrontation.

Many protesters, for example, adorned themselves in black. The color was made popular in December when churchgoers in Hong Kong wore black over two Sundays in solidarity with fellow Christians in the mainland suffering a government crackdown on religion. To many Christians, black is the symbol for the persecution of Christ. For the vast majority of Hong Kongers who are not Christian, the meaning was apt for the struggle against China’s growing encroachment on the city’s semi-autonomy.

When one protester was killed in a fall on Saturday while unfurling a banner, people brought white flowers to the site, bringing out yet another Christian icon. In addition, the Hong Kong Red Cross and similar groups set up hotlines to support people traumatized by the incident and the relatively few cases of violence by the police.

Local churches also held prayer meetings while encouraging followers to join the protests out of their concern that the proposed law would be used by China to squash freedom of worship in Hong Kong. Organizers asked believers to pray for both the “persecuted and persecutors.”

On the front lines, pastors stood between the crowds and police to help prevent violence. Some clergy led the singing of a Christian hymn, “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” one of the favorite songs of the protesters.

The crowds also sang tunes from the hit show “Les Misérables,” such as “Do You Hear the People Sing?” (That song is largely blocked on the internet in China.) The lyrics in the musical’s final number were particularly fitting:

They will live again in freedom

In the garden of the Lord.

They will walk behind the plough-share,

They will put away the sword.

The chain will be broken

And all men will have their reward.

With such a large and peaceful crowd on Sunday, the Beijing-backed chief executive of the Hong Kong government, Carrie Lam, was forced to suspend consideration of the proposed measure. She also apologized for not listening more closely to the concerns of the people and promised to act in a “humble way.” While China’s rulers may someday tighten their grip on Hong Kong, they’ll have to do so over millions of people singing and praying with messages of love and freedom.

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