Chaos engulfed the financial heart of Hong Kong on Saturday evening, when hardcore protesters threw rocks, started fires and shone laser pens at riot police behind a barricade at the city parliament.
Demonstrators angry about the arrest of leading activists the previous day defied a police ban on rallying to take to the streets for a 13th straight weekend.
Police had banned the demonstration on security grounds, then organizers canceled it, after last weekend saw some of the most violent clashes in months of political turmoil.
But large crowds, many in their usual black T-shirts and under a canopy of umbrellas, marched through Hong Kong Island regardless, blocking roads and chanting “Reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our times”.
Police had put up yellow warning flags in Wan Chai in the early afternoon, ordering protesters to disperse as people gathered for the start of the “Pray for sinners” march.
Organizers claimed the walk from Southorn Playground to Government House in Central was a religious event and did not require police permission. In an attempt to sidestep the protest ban, crowds carried crosses and sang “Hallelujah” before some of the marchers opted to disperse.
Hundreds of people dressed in black also took over Hennessy Road near the Sogo store in Causeway Bay at around 3pm. Some said they were angry at the arrest of a number of pro-democracy activists, and unhappy with the police’s decision to ban a rally and march by the Civil Human Rights Front. They claimed they were only “shopping” in the area.
Public transport was also shut down and roads closed in Western District amid reports of a large authorized rally on Saturday afternoon. Buses were diverted, parts of Connaught Road closed and the MTR stopped serving Sai Ying Pun from 1.30pm on. Trams were also suspended from the Macau Ferry terminal after midday, and the Shek Tong Tsui exit of Western Harbour Crossing was blocked at police request.
Initially, there was drizzling rain and the crowd was passive. But August 31 is a day of some significance to the protesters, marking the fifth anniversary of Beijing’s rejection of the call for universal suffrage during the 79-day Umbrella Movement in 2014.
As the sun went down protesters smashed through the barrier outside the parliament building, known as the Legislative Council, only to be repelled by tear gas and jets of blue-colored liquid fired from the water cannon.
Local media said the colored spray aimed to make it easier to identify suspects. The protesters hit back with a barrage of molotov cocktails that left fires burning.
‘Lam should resign’
The day appeared to start more positively for those demanding change. James Tien Pei-chun, the former Liberal Party leader, said in a public debate that the central government should allow Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign to help calm the situation in Hong Kong.
Protesters have made five demands and two of these – complete withdrawal of the extradition bill and the establishment of an independent investigation into the protests – could be done first to ease public tension, Tien, a politician with strong links to the city’s tycoons, said in a RTHK program early on Saturday.
If the situation continues to get worse, Beijing should allow Lam to resign, Tien said, adding that these measures could help reduce the number of protesters on the streets.
In a separate interview with the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Tien said a lot of tycoons who voted for Lam in 2017 agreed that Beijing should allow the city chief to step down. He said protests had been intensifying since early June and hurting the city’s economy while Lam’s popularity had hit an historic low.
It did not matter who gets the Hong Kong leader’s job, Tien said. But, if the city government cannot contain the situation and use the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance to suppress the protests, the business sector would lose confidence in investing in Hong Kong, he said.
Earlier, Martin Lee Chu-ming, the Democratic Party’s founding chairman, told RTHK the Emergency Regulations Ordinance would destroy Hong Kong’s ‘One country two systems’ policy, as it violates the Basic Law. Lee suggested Tien should get political heavyweights to visit Beijing and get the central government to allow Lam to resign.
‘Beijing refused to yield’
Lam reportedly told Beijing that withdrawing the extradition bill could help defuse the crisis, according to unnamed sources quoted in a Reuters report on Friday. But the central government allegedly declined and ordered Lam not to yield to any of the protesters’ other demands.
Geng Shuang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said the central government had no more comments to add after it showed support, respect and understanding for the Hong Kong government’s decision to suspend the extradition bill on June 15.
On August 7, Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Hong Kong Macau Affairs Office, said in a speech to 500 pro-establishment Hong Kong politicians in Shenzhen that protests over changes to the extradition law contained characteristics of a “color revolution.” And Wang Zhimin, director of the Liaison Office, said the central government would not compromise with the “rioters,” because they wanted to change the regime in Hong Kong.
On August 27, when Lam was asked by reporters whether her government would use the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to contain the situation in the territory, she said all legal tools should be considered.
NowTV said sources have said the Executive Council had discussed the ordinance while the government would make a decision whether to do so after evaluating the situation on August 31.
Read: Lam’s plan to use colonial-era law criticized
The Civil Human Rights Front announced on Friday that it had to cancel a planned march on Saturday after it failed to get approval from the police. It said it had no choice but to cancel the march to protect people’s safety.
On the same day, at least nine pro-democracy activists and lawmakers were arrested for their involvement in protests against the extradition law changes.
Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Agnes Chow Ting and Ivan Lam Long-yin – three leaders of the pro-democracy organization Demosistō – were charged for alleged involvement in a protest at Wan Chai police headquarters on June 21.
Althea Suen Hiu-nam, former president of the University of Hong Kong student union, said police went to her home on Thursday but she was not at home. She went to Wan Chai police headquarters on Friday.
Pro-democracy lawmakers Jeremy Tam, Au Nok-hin, Cheng Chung-tai and Shatin district councilor Rick Hui were also arrested, along with Andy Chan, leader of the banned pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, who said he was taken into custody at the airport.
On Thursday, Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, and a friend were attacked by two masked men with a metal rod and a baseball bat. Max Chung Kin-ping, who organized a legal anti-triad protest in Yuen Long in July, was also attacked by four men wielding metal rods and umbrellas.
However, pro-democracy lawmakers said Hong Kong protesters would not be deterred by government ‘white terror’ tactics and would use innovative ways to voice their demands on Saturday.
Read: Key activists charged prior to rally, march banned
Meanwhile, the Trump administration said it opposes attempts to deny Hong Kongers the right to free speech and assembly.
A White House official said arbitrary arrests of political opponents was a tactic employed by authoritarian regimes.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said developments in Hong Kong were extremely worrying. She said local authorities should respect people’s desire for freedom of assembly, expression and association.
With reporting by AFP