Hong Kong clashes stoke fears of growing cycle of violence

Mounting protests signal extent of deep political crisis confronting former British colony

Hong Kong authorities step up security around China's main representative office as protests break out, with anger among the crowds simmering over what many see as an increasing cycle of violence against them. Video: Reuters


Hong Kong police clashed with thousands of protesters on Sunday, as they sought to defend China’s main representative office from crowds seething over what many see as an increasing cycle of violence against them.

Protests over the past two months spearheaded by anti-government activists against a proposed Bill that would allow people to be extradited from the city to stand trial in courts in mainland China have grown increasingly violent.

A march on Saturday against a violent assault the previous weekend by suspected triad gang members ended in violent turmoil as riot police waded in to disperse crowds. On Sunday, a peaceful gathering in a park in the city’s central business district rapidly morphed into a march, as tens of thousands of black-clad protesters set off in several directions, clogging up major thoroughfares.

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 barricades after it was surrounded and defaced a week earlier. A clear plastic shield had been erected around a national emblem above its front doors.

Rubber bullets

As the crowds surged, hundreds of riot police with shields advanced, firing rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and sponge grenades – a crowd control weapon – at protesters, sending clouds of acrid, burning smoke through the streets.

Some protesters were on their knees choking as ambulances raced to take away the injured. The mostly young activists in hard hats, gas masks, and body armour dug in, dismantling street signs and fences which they used to form makeshift barricades to slow police advances. Many hit metallic surfaces with sticks to create a loud beat that sounded down the streets.

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 authority which would not be tolerated.

China denies interfering in Hong Kong and has warned that the violent protests over the proposed legislation allowing extraditions to mainland China were an “undisguised challenge” to the formula under which it is ruled.

Many of the marchers on Sunday chanted slogans against the police. Some held up banners reading: “We rise as one, we fight as one” and “Stop violence”.

“I have been to every protest and I never wear a mask,” said Phong Luk, wearing a Spider Man suit to match one worn by his six-year-old son.

“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.”

Political crisis

The protests have brought the most serious political crisis to Hong Kong since it returned to China.

What began as a movement to oppose the extradition law that would have allowed people to be sent to China for trial, 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.

The protests are also one of the most direct challenges to the authority of China’s president Xi Jinping.

The protests appeared to be getting more organised, as well as more violent. On Sunday, activists said they hoped 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,” said protester Edward Ng. – Reuters