Hong Kong protesters sent police on a chase through the city Sunday night, changing routes several times and briefly paralyzing a range of neighborhoods in an effort to outsmart officers, as twin demonstrations ahead of a planned citywide strike intensified pressure on Hong Kong’s government to acquiesce to demands.
Police responded with large volumes of tear gas in Causeway Bay, a neon-lit shopping hub, a scene that is becoming commonplace even in residential and tourist-heavy areas in the major financial center.
Black-clad protesters chanted “Monday! Strike!” as they flooded into the busy shopping district to occupy the city’s cross-harbor tunnel and paralyze other major thoroughfares.
The move was a last-minute diversion from the rally’s starting point several miles west, where the Chinese government’s liaison office and police building nearby were barricaded in anticipation of clashes. Two weekends ago, the liaison office was the focus of rage for protesters, who defaced the building and the Chinese emblem in a provocation against Beijing. Protesters said they picked the neighborhood to allow for easy dispersal amid a widening police crackdown on their movement.
“A large group of radical protesters were blocking roads in the busy areas of Causeway Bay. They set fire to a trolley of rubbish bins, cardboard and miscellaneous objects, posing a serious threat to the safety of everyone at scene,” police said in a statement. “In face of the situation, Police used tear gas in the area to disperse the protesters.”
On Monday, thousands of businesses plan to shutter and at least six rallies are planned around the city.
Mass protests began in early June, some drawing millions to the streets, over a now-shelved extradition bill to allow fugitives in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial. The proposal is seen as a major threat to Hong Kong’s independent judiciary system, which is supposed to be protected by “one country, two systems,” a framework established after the colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
As the Beijing-backed government refuses to compromise on any of the protesters’ democratic demands, demonstrations have evolved into a broader movement against Chinese interference and the erosion of the territory’s cherished civil liberties. Protests have become a weekly, if not daily, occurrence, with demonstrations targeting the airport, shopping malls, transportation systems and government buildings.
Sunday saw two main rallies: the first in a residential area in eastern Kowloon called Tseun Kwan O, the second in central areas of Hong Kong island. By using a new guerrilla strategy, protesters who were part of the second rally sent police flying all over the city, quickly disrupting and departing from busy areas to avoid confrontations with police.
“We are very angry. Hong Kong people, we are so frustrated, the government should be of the people, for the people, by the people,” says Kenji Chen, a 39-year-old English teacher at the park rally on Hong Kong island. “But what the government is doing is to please the Chinese government. It’s not listening to the people, peaceful or non-peaceful.”
Despite the government’s hardening line against the protests, government inaction and heightening police force has only served to embolden protesters.
This weekend marked the ninth in a row of increasingly hectic and violent demonstrations. On Saturday, a police-approved march through major shopping district Tsim Sha Tsui splintered into protests around Kowloon, a peninsula opposite the city’s central business district.
At one point, protesters briefly occupied a cross-harbor tunnel and spray-painted it with “revolution of our times” and “ideas are bulletproof.” Protesters also removed the Chinese flag from a pole and flung it into the harbor.
China’s liaison office in a statement expressed its “strong indignation,” saying the move “flagrantly offended the dignity of the country and the nation and trampled on the bottom line of the “one Country, two systems.'”
“The biggest fear is, they cancel the system, one country, two systems,” said Samuel Wong, a 23-year-old protester in an area of the city west of central Hong Kong, who was also at the park rally. Wong fears authorities will “just treat Hongkongers just like a normal Chinese city.”
Late Saturday night, police deployed several rounds of tear gas to disperse protesters. Police said some violent protesters threw gas bombs, glass bottles and bricks at officers, and they arrested 20 people for unlawful assembly and assault. Police have arrested over a hundred people in relation to the protests, including 44 people who were arrested last weekend and charged with rioting.
In a statement, police strongly condemned “the radical protesters who disregarded law and order” on Saturday, saying “police are capable and determined to maintain law and order and will not tolerate any violence.”
Escalating violence has intensified calls for an independent investigation into the police, as protests regularly end in exchanges of projectiles, tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray. Police have come under fire, especially since a recent mob attack that left 45 people injured in a subway station. Police arrived on the scene 39 minutes later and are accused of condoning the violence and colluding with the attackers, which police flatly deny.
An independent investigation is one of the five main protest demands, alongside calling for the city’s leader Carrie Lam to step down, the removal of the term “rioters” from the June 12 protest, amnesty for all those arrested and direct election of officials.
Authorities show no sign of conceding to any demands. This week, Beijing ramped up its rhetoric, with China’s top military official in Hong Kong calling the violent protests of recent weeks “absolutely intolerable,” a speech that coincided with the release of a video of the People’s Liberation Army conducting anti-riot drills in Hong Kong.
Earlier this week, in a rare news conference, China’s top office for handling Hong Kong affairs condemned protesters and reiterated its support for Lam and the police, calling the return of law and order to Hong Kong its “most pressing priority.”
“Hong Kong cannot afford to have instability,” Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, told reporters at the conference. “Should the chaos continue, it is the entire Hong Kong society that will suffer.”
“It’s crystal clear that the (Chinese authorities will) rely on the police violence. They try to make it clear that they will use the police force to govern Hong Kong,” says pro-democracy activist Leung Kwok-hung, also known as Long Hair, outside the park rally. “It’s very dangerous now. It’s almost like a semi-military mode in Hong Kong.”