Police in Hong Kong fired rubber-coated rounds and volleys of tear gas after thousands of pro-democracy protesters gathered near China’s main representative office as authorities appealed to people to stay indoors with their windows shut.
Officers fire tear gas during a protest against police violence during previous marches on Sunday [Elson Li/HK01 via AP]
Chaotic scenes filled several blocks in the western part of Hong Kong island late Sunday night as police pushed demonstrators back and away from the Chinese government’s liaison office and a police station.
Demonstrators fought back with bricks, rudimentary weapons, and even sheets of glass as baton-wielding riot police waded into crowds in some of the most sustained and violent clashes seen during seven weeks of protest.
Specially trained riot squad members, known as “Raptor” squads, made dozens of arrests, almost all of them young men and women. Several protesters were injured, as well as two journalists.
Protesters threw eggs at the liaison office last weekend and splattered paint on China’s national emblem – moves certain to anger Beijing authorities.
“We strongly condemn the radical protesters who disregarded the law and order and violently breached the public peace,” the Hong Kong goverment said in a statement. “We will continue to give full support to the police to strictly enforce the law to stop all violent behaviours.”
As the unauthorised protest occurred, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office — China’s top policy unit for the two cities — said in an unusual move that it would hold a press conference on Monday afternoon in Beijing.
The demonstrators are demanding direct elections for the semi-autonomous Chinese territory’s leader, the resignation of the current leader, and an investigation into police use of force to quell earlier protests.
Hong Kong-based journalist Kris Cheng said calls are growing for general strikes and noted the situation was unlikely to improve until the protesters’ demands are met.
“We see increasing cracks within the government with calls for a public rally hosted by civil servants, so we will see if the government itself is losing support from its own employees,” he told Al Jazeera.
Sunday’s rally came after protests over the past two months against a proposed bill that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to mainland China have grown increasingly violent.
A march on Saturday in a rural northern town denouncing a bloody assault the previous weekend by suspected triad gang members ended in turmoil as riot police used tear gas, rubber bullets and sponge grenades to clear the crowds.
Earlier on Sunday, a gathering in a park in Hong Kong’s central business district began spilling on to surrounding roads. Black-clad protesters set off in several directions, clogging up major thoroughfares in an apparent attempt to stretch the police by splitting up their marches.
“The police usually surround us and we have nowhere to go. So we adjust our strategy this time. This is much more fluid and flexible,” protester Edward Ng said.
Thousands of people headed east towards the shopping district of Causeway Bay, while another large contingent headed west, towards the Chinese government’s representative office, known as the Central Government Liaison Office.
There, hundreds of riot police blocked activists from advancing towards the building, which had been heavily fortified with water-filled plastic barricades.
A clear plastic shield had been erected around a national emblem above its front doors.
Focus of anger
The office has become a focus for the anger of protesters alarmed by what many see as Beijing’s increasing control despite guarantees of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” formula, struck when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Last Sunday, protesters took police by surprise with a swoop on the Liaison Office, scrawling graffiti and throwing paint bombs at walls, the national emblem and a plaque.
Chinese officials described the vandalism as a “challenge” to the central government’s sovereignty which would not be tolerated.
“Everyone knows very well that the current Hong Kong government has been controlled by some outside forces, like those in the Liaison Office,” said an activist surnamed Chan.
“Now Hong Kong doesn’t even have basic freedom of assembly. We have come here to make a symbolic expression.”
China denies interfering in Hong Kong and has warned that the violent protests over the proposed extradition bill were an “undisguised challenge” to the formula under which it is ruled.
‘We rise as one, we fight as one’
What began as a movement to oppose the extradition bill has taken on broader demands including the resignation of Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader Carrie Lam, calls for full democracy, and an independent inquiry into what some say has been excessive police force against protesters.
Earlier this month, Lam said the bill was “dead” but she refused to officially retract it.
Al Jazeera’s Sarah Clarke, reporting from Hong Kong, said there were no signs the crisis would end soon.
“There have been no concessions from either side, and both sides are unlikely to back down,” she said.
Many of the marchers on Sunday chanted slogans against the police such as “Black police. Shameful”. Some held up banners saying “We rise as one, we fight as one” and “Stop violence”.
Many protesters wore helmets. Some wore body armour and gas masks, and carried makeshift shields and sticks.
“I have been to every protest and I never wear a mask,” said Phong Luk, who came to the protest donning a Spider-Man suit to match one his six-year son wore.
“I’m doing nothing wrong. It is those in power that are wrong… At this point, there is nothing to be done except for Carrie Lam to step down, because she obviously cannot rule.”
Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy legislator, warned that the protests will continue and is heading towards more escalation of violence.
“I am looking at possible casualties, even fatalities,” he told Al Jazeera.