A week of relative calm in Hong Kong fractured into loud clashes again Saturday, as police used batons, tear gas and pepper pellets to push back brick-tossing protesters.
The unrest put a definitive end to a brief detente in the Asian financial centre, as demonstrators in helmets and black shirts abandoned a strategy of non-confrontation, which some dismissed as ineffective.
Instead, what began as a peaceful march to protest government use of surveillance cameras reverted to what has now become a familiar pattern, with a standoff between police and demonstrators that soon erupted in skirmishes. Near the city’s Ngau Tao Kok Division police station, protesters threw bricks and petrol bombs, tore railings from streetsides to fashion into barricades and sprayed walls with obscene graffiti. Protesters also took down and disassembled several smart lamp posts, which some suspect are useful for invasive government monitoring, although officials say they are used to collect traffic and weather data.
Riot police responded by firing non-lethal rounds and canisters of tear gas and charging at protesters beneath the windows of apartment complexes and past anti-Beijing graffiti decrying “Kong-munism” and “ChiNazi.”
Less than 24 hours earlier, more than 130,000 people stood shoulder to shoulder in a series of human walls that stretched across more than 50 kilometres of city streets, organizers said. Five days before, more than a million people marched through downtown Hong Kong in a driving rainstorm.
But the relative tranquility of those scenes only served as a temporary respite, masking an appetite for conflict among demonstrators convinced that non-violent tactics don’t work. They dismissed an offer of dialogue this week from Chief Executive Carrie Lam as insincere.
”We don’t want violence, no one does. But I think it is currently our one and only option if we want to attract the government’s attention,” said Peggy Hung, a student who was one of those on the frontlines. “Being peaceful no longer helps. This is our last chance.”
Vincent Wu, another young demonstrator dressed in black and wearing a mask described a reinforcing circle of action: “first you protest and get ignored by the government. Then we have enough reason to fight back and use violence to upgrade tactics. In this way, we can push them to respond.”
Such violence has taken a toll on Hong Kong, a leading financial and transportation hub. Tourism-dependent industries are reeling from a plunge in visitors this month, after repeated clashes have closed the city’s airport and snarled transportation corridors.
Still, organizers estimated that more than a million people then marched through the city on Aug. 18, a demonstration that many on the front lines took as a vindication of their tactics: Even after they shut down the airport, huge numbers took to the streets to show support.
”At this time I think the tolerance for some level of violence or vandalism seems to be accepted, and more tolerated, by the general public,” said Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy member of the city’s Legislative Council. On Saturday afternoon, he stood between protesters and police, willing to mediate but nearly certain it would be of little use.
“That road has been reduced to almost zero,” he said.
Unlike in previous weeks, clashes continued for hours in one place after MTR, the city’s public transit operator, closed subway stations in the city’s Kwun Tong neighbourhood, following criticism from Chinese state media that it had used its rail network to aid protesters. The closed stations prevented protesters from using an earlier tactic of boarding trains to move quickly through the city, staging “flash mobs” in various locations.
Later in the evening, skirmishes and tear gas moved to several other neighbourhoods as well.
Police arrested 29 people, who they accused of unlawful assembly, possession of an offensive weapon and assaulting police officers. Photos circulated through online chat groups of a demonstrator whose eye, they said, was bloodied by a non-lethal round, renewing criticism of police use of force.
Such accusations have been matched by recriminations from police that protesters have provoked a response with violent tactics.
In a statement, the Hong Kong government said it “strongly condemns the vandalistic and violent acts of the protesters.” A spokesman appealed “to the protesters to stop the violence so that order can be restored in society as soon as possible.”
At a seminar in the nearby mainland city of Shenzhen Saturday, meanwhile, a pro-Beijing politician issued new warnings about the possibility for Chinese military intervention. “The soldiers stationed in Hong Kong are not strawmen meant to just stay in the garrison,” said Maria Tam, a former Hong Kong lawmaker who is now in a senior role with the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in China.
If violence continues, “Hong Kong could face the risk of sinking,” warned Xu Ze, president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong & Macao Studies, in remarks reported by Chinese state media.
The return of street clashes did little to dispel the tense stalemate that has enveloped the city. Protesters are struggling to create pressure for their demands — for full withdrawal of a proposed extradition bill, an independent inquiry into police conduct and the granting of greater democratic freedoms, among others. Government leaders have made no further concessions, beyond shelving the bill and launching a fact-finding study by the Independent Police Complaints Council.
Yet the stalemate extends even to the streets, where police equipped with shields and riot gear have a diminishing advantage over protesters, many of whom wear goggles and masks that largely immunize them from tear gas.
“Why do people want to stay?” asked Peter Cheng, an activist who was at the protest Saturday. “Because they see no hope. They are just trying to do something to give pressure to the government.”
Though hundreds have been arrested — and some face years in prison if convicted — Ms. Hung, the student, said she no longer worries about the consequences.
“I also once felt afraid and asked myself if it’s worth it to get detained or hurt,” she said. “But then I realized that I should do those things that need to be done.”
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