HONG KONG — More than 1,000 people including mainland Chinese visitors took to Hong Kong's streets Saturday in a noisy and colourful procession to demand the release of detained artist Ai Weiwei.
Armed with banners, posters, masks and musical instruments, the protesters -- many of them artists -- walked through the city's downtown Tsim Sha Tsui district, chanting slogans including "Free Ai Weiwei" and "Truth is no crime".
"We are here to support Ai Weiwei. We want Ai and the other activists detained in China to be released immediately," Luke Ching, a spokesman from the organisers, Art Citizens, told reporters.
"Ai Weiwei merely expressed his opinions. There was no trial -- he should not remain in custody," said Ching, himself a visual artist.
The crowd, initially numbered at about 500, swelled to over 1,000 as they walked across the city and attracted attention from shoppers in the luxury retail district, many of those from mainland China.
"We only read about the detention of Ai Weiwei from Hong Kong newspapers when we got here for holiday five days ago," said Libby Xu, a 30-year-old tourist from mainland China, accompanied by her husband.
"We think Hong Kong people have more freedom to express themselves and it is good they voice their concerns on what is going on in China," Xu said, as she snapped pictures of the protesters.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, has maintained semi-autonomous status since its return to China in 1997, with a separate legal system and civil liberties not seen on the mainland.
China has launched a crackdown on dissidents in recent weeks, arresting scores of lawyers and campaigners and putting them under house arrest.
They include Ai, a prominent artist and harsh critic of China's Communist Party leaders, who was held in early April for unspecified "economic crimes", sparking worldwide condemnation.
"There are many political detainees in China. We want them to be set free," said protester Him Lo, who was covered in red paint and held up yellow balloons to signify China's national flag as he marched barefoot.
"We artists want to send a message to the Chinese government," said the 30-year-old, a painter and performance artist.
There was a brief standoff between police and the group during the two-hour march, when officers told the protesters to divert to a shorter route than they had planned. Police later relented and there was no violence.
China's crackdown followed anonymous online calls urging activists and dissidents to stage "Jasmine" protests in an echo of the unrest that has swept the Arab world, toppling some authoritarian regimes.
Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders said more than 50 activists have been detained and many more placed under house arrest. Of those detained, the group said nearly 40 have been criminally charged.
Ai, whose whereabouts remain unknown, was listed Friday among Time magazine's count of the world's "100 most influential people".
China has warned the international community not to interfere in Ai's case, after his detention sparked global outrage including from the United States, which called for his release.
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