Chanting "No more tear gas," dozens of Hong Kong families with young children marched Saturday to oppose the government's handling of pro-democracy protests on the eve of keenly contested local elections.
Riot police have reportedly fired more than 9,000 rounds of tear gas since protests began roiling the Chinese territory in June, often in crowded areas and also near schools.
With police now buying canisters from China, there are rising fears that the tear gas could release toxic chemicals including cancer-causing dioxin. A local journalist covering the protests reportedly said he had been diagnosed with a skin condition linked to exposure to toxins including dioxin.
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The government this week said there was no evidence of any health or environment risks and has refused to reveal the chemicals in the tear gas, citing operational concerns.
"Does the government have something to hide? With police firing tear gas wantonly, how do we protect ourselves and clean up properly after exposure?" Emily Ku, 33, said as she marched with her 5-year-old daughter in a Kowloon suburb.
More worrying is the unknown long-term impact on children's health, she said.
Another marcher, Michelle Lam, said she and her 6-year-old daughter, who live in an area that has been a frequent protest site, have suffered worsening sinus symptoms in recent weeks due to tear gas.
Lam said she will vote early Sunday in the district council elections and hopes a win by the pro-democracy camp will make clear that Hong Kong people are united behind the movement to protect the city's freedoms.
"The government should respond to the people's demands and not use tear gas and other hard tactics to suppress our voice," she said, before the march ended peacefully.
Sunday's polls have emerged as a pivotal bellwether on public support for the increasingly violent protests, which have disrupted life in the financial hub for months.
There was a rare repose in violence this week as protesters, anxious to validate their cause through the ballot box, hit the pause button to ensure the polls won't be postponed.
"We need to show the world that our cause is legitimate. I don't believe that Beijing will not respond to the Hong Kong people's voice," black-clad and masked student Alex Wong said during the anti-tear gas march.
Online messages have urged protesters not to wear black or face masks during voting in case they are targeted by police. For the first time, all 452 seats in 18 district councils — currently dominated by pro-establishment parties — are being contested.
Hong Kong Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said Saturday that the vote by nearly 60 percent of the city's population is a "real democratic exercise," and that a strong police presence at polling stations will ensure that it proceeds smoothly.
Cheung brushed off comments by President Donald Trump that he was the reason why China didn't crush the Hong Kong protests. Trump said Friday he had asked Chinese President Xi Jinping not to send in the military because it would complicate U.S.-China trade talks.
Trump also refused to commit to signing bipartisan legislation supporting Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists after Beijing warned it would retaliate.
"We have the confidence, determination and ability to resolve the crisis, to find a way out of this storm," Cheung said.
He also reiterated that police will deal humanely with a small group of protesters who refused to leave Polytechnic University, which has been ringed by police for days.
Mediators including teachers, social workers and lawyers scoured the campus Saturday to find and persuade protesters to leave. Hygiene has deteriorated, with a strong stench from rotten food and thrash littering the campus grounds.
The campus occupation by protesters followed fiery clashes with police in the latest bout in the unrest. Protesters are demanding direct elections for Hong Kong's leader and legislators, and an investigation into alleged police brutality.