Hong Kong riot police fired repeated tear gas rounds on Saturday evening at pro-democracy protesters in a popular tourist district, during the latest violence to rock the global finance hub despite increasingly stern warnings from China.
The semi-autonomous southern Chinese city has seen two months of protests and clashes triggered by opposition to a planned extradition law that quickly evolved into a wider movement for democratic reforms.
Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing this week signalled a hardening stance. Dozens of protesters were arrested, and the Chinese military said it was ready to quell the “intolerable” unrest if requested.
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But protesters are unyielding, vowing to hold multiple occupations and rallies in the coming days.
The previous two weekends had seen a surge in violence by both protesters and police, who repeatedly fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse projectile-throwing crowds.
Saturday’s violence kicked off in Tsim Sha Tsui, a usually bustling harbourside district known for its luxury malls and hotels.
Officers with gas masks and shields charged at hundreds of protesters who had besieged a nearby police station.
Masked demonstrators smashed the windows of cars in the police parking lot and daubed nearby walls with graffiti. One team of protesters created a large slingshot — held up by two members — to launch bricks at the building.
There were multiple arrests.
Early Sunday tear gas was also fired in nearby Wong Tai Sin district, after protesters and local residents besieged the local police station there.
Unlike the more seasoned protesters, many locals did not have gas masks or goggles, and volunteer medics rushed to treat the injured, AFP reporters on the scene said.
Earlier in the day tens of thousands of protesters marched through nearby streets embracing their mantra “be water” — a philosophy of unpredictability espoused by local martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
They seized roads, built barricades and even briefly blocked a cross-harbour tunnel.
“We will fight as guerrillas today and be water,” a masked and helmeted 19-year-old, who gave her surname Lee, told AFP.
– City-wide strike –
Many of the chants and graffiti tags thrown up Saturday called for residents to join a planned city-wide strike on Monday.
“The more the government suppresses us, the more we will come out until the government responds to our demands,” protester Ah Kit, 36, told AFP.
Two marches are also planned for Sunday while the call for strike action appears to be gaining more traction than previous walkouts.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover deal with Britain, the city has rights and liberties unseen on the Chinese mainland, including an independent judiciary and freedom of speech.
But many say those rights are being curtailed, citing the disappearance into mainland custody of dissident booksellers, the disqualification of prominent politicians and the jailing of pro-democracy protest leaders.
Public anger has been compounded by rising inequality and the perception that the city’s distinct language and culture are being threatened by ever-closer integration with the Chinese mainland.
Anger towards the police is at record levels with officers increasingly seen as Beijing’s enforcers — although police deny using excessive force and say they are facing protesters who are becoming more hardcore.
– A pro-government rally –
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has made few concessions beyond agreeing to suspend the extradition bill, and has shied away from public appearances.
Protesters are demanding her resignation, an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty for those arrested, a permanent withdrawal of the bill, and the right to elect their leaders.
Thousands of pro-government supporters also rallied in a separate park on Saturday, many waving Chinese flags and chanting slogans in support of the police.
Beijing has increasingly pitched the anti-government protests as funded by the West.
China has provided little evidence beyond supportive statements from some Western politicians, and critics say Beijing’s accusations of foreign meddling ignore Hong Kongers’ legitimate grievances.