Some of the worst clashes in months of protest bloodied the streets of Hong Kong Tuesday, with demonstrators attacking police, who then shot one protester with live ammunition.
Protesters said they were determined to show defiance on a day when Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over a National Day military parade showcasing high-tech weaponry.
Mr. Xi said Beijing will “continue to strive for the complete unification of our country" and declared that “there is no force that can shake the foundation of this great nation. No force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation forging ahead.”
In Hong Kong, however, with thousands determined to overshadow the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, masked demonstrators clad in black used sticks to beat several police officers. Another was attacked with a corrosive liquid, authorities said.
One officer, who charged into protesters who were swinging what looked to be metal rods, shot and wounded an 18-year-old man at close range in the chest with a pistol, an incident captured on at least two videos. Police confirmed that an officer opened fire at a protester and said he was acting in self-defence.
It is the first time in four months of protests that a live round was fired at a protester.
The protester is in critical but not life-threatening condition, local media reported. Police commissioner Stephen Lo confirmed the man was conscious when he was taken to hospital. Hong Kong’s hospital authority said the teen was one of two people in critical condition, with a total of 51 people injured.
Police issued warnings, but those on the scene “faced life-threatening danger,” said Senior Superintendent Yu Hoi-kwan in a video statement posted to Facebook Tuesday evening. “To protect his own safety and that of his colleagues, the officer fired one shot at the attackers,” Supt. Yu said. “Police do not want to see anyone injured during the incidents. We once again urge rioters to halt their illegal acts.“
Protesters and rights groups have, in turn, faulted police for the use of excessive violence and agents provocateur.
Amnesty International issued a statement urging authorities to review their approach to handling the protests: “The shooting of a protester in #HongKong marks an alarming development in the police’s response to protests. We call on the Hong Kong authorities to launch a prompt & effective investigation into the sequence of events that left a teenager fighting for his life in hospital.”
The ugly scenes once again tested the willingness of people in Hong Kong to stand behind the protesters. “The risk is that we might lose our moral authority, which is bad for the movement. Because it’s the moral authority that gives us the power,” billionaire media tycoon Jimmy Lai, a prominent critic of Beijing, said in an interview just hours before the new violence broke out.
“The violence is just a response to police violence,” he said. But the demonstrators have attacked objects rather than people, he said. “I think that’s okay. I think they have been very disciplined.”
Organizers said roughly 150,000 people took to the streets on Tuesday afternoon in an unauthorized street march, followed by hours of hardcore protesters engaging in repeated skirmishes with police.
The city’s subway operator halted all service, but protests continued across the city into the night, with police unleashing clouds of tear gas and firing hails of non-lethal rounds in an attempt to drive back demonstrators, who blocked roads with concrete planters and set raging fires on the streets.
The message to Beijing: “We can fight back,” protester Edward Lee said. “You can’t force us. We won’t let you walk over us.”
The number of protesters on China’s National Day marked a “very powerful and very clear signal to the world and also to the Communist Party of China that we would not give up our fight,” activist and former politician Lee Cheuk-yan said. “This is a national day for mourning, not celebration. And we mourn for those who sacrifice for democracy in China and also democracy in Hong Kong.”
But Tuesday’s events left Hong Kong police Commissioner Lo “really sad.”
“Our National Day is supposed to be a day to celebrate and be happy,” he said. “But unfortunately some rioters chose to do all these sorts of criminal damages, arson, … assaulting police officers,” conduct he likened to rioting.
He defended the officer who shot a protester as acting in a “lawful and reasonable” manner. Police arrested more than 180 people.
Beijing’s strict media censorship kept the violence in Hong Kong off screens in China, where National Day was celebrated as a glorious achievement, including at an evening gala on Tiananmen Square featuring curtains of fireworks across the city and mass performances on a scale worthy of an Olympic opening ceremony.
“The Chinese nation has achieved a tremendous transformation: It has stood up, grown rich and is becoming influential,” the People’s Daily wrote in an editorial. “China is now transitioning from a big country into a strong one,” and everyone in the Communist Party “must do more to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests and staunchly oppose all attempts to split China or undermine its ethnic unity and social harmony and stability.”
That message fell on some deaf ears in Hong Kong, however, where “the mood on National Day is one of defiance much more than celebration,” said Jeff Wasserstrom, a China scholar at the University of California, Irvine.
Indeed, “we have come out to say no to Communist China,” said Mr. Lai, 71, whose Next Media Group regularly criticizes Beijing and who has himself been a target of Chinese anger. He regularly receives death threats.
But, he said in the interview, “if we don’t fight, we will lose everything. We will lose our freedom, our rule of law, our way of life, our human rights. So to fight is the only alternative.”
Mr. Xi’s determination to maintain control over Beijing’s territorial claims is “why we have to persist in fighting,” Mr. Lai said, in hopes of achieving greater autonomy for Hong Kong. After all, he said, his own generation’s efforts at peaceful resistance achieved “nothing. Instead, we lost a lot. So how can we tell the kids, ‘Don’t resist. Don’t confront the police. Don’t use violence.’”
He believes the protests mark the beginning of a “persistent uprising."
"People are not going to give up,” he said. “Because this is a very phenomenal movement” that has swept up “every strata of society, every profession.”
He dismissed the costs – economic and otherwise – of the turbulence.
“Whatever is bad is temporary. To lose our freedom is forever,” he said.
With files from Reuters and The Associated Press
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