HONG KONG - Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s plea for a chance to talk failed to move anti-government protesters, who again clashed with riot police on Saturday (Aug 24) in eastern Kowloon as escalating demonstrations in the city entered the 12th straight weekend.
After a brief respite the previous weekend when demonstrations were peaceful, a group of hardcore protesters on Saturday clashed with riot police, throwing petrol bombs and spraying fire extinguisher at officers who then fired rounds of tear gas to disperse the crowd after repeated warnings proved “futile”.
In a statement, police said violent protesters occupied roads next to the Ngau Tau Kok Division police station, started fires and hurled bricks at officers.
Some protesters also sawed a “smart lamppost” and toppled it, to the cheers of others who watched on.
As part of a pilot project, 50 such lampposts have been installed in Kwun Tong. The lampposts have built-in sensors and cameras that can be used to monitor traffic flow, air quality and the weather. But there were concerns that the technology would allow the government to spy on individuals and identify protesters.
While most left Kowloon Bay, a small group of hardcore protesters later shifted to Wong Tai Sin.
Police, in a statement on Saturday night, said a large group of violent protesters continue to block Lung Cheung Road, Wong Tai Sin, aimed laser beams at police officers, and hurled bricks at the police cordon lines. Such acts posed a serious threat to the citizens and officers on the scene.
"Having given repeated warnings to the protesters in vain, police officers have deployed tear gas and minimum force to disperse the protesters," it said.
Some protesters also briefly set up barricades and blocked a section of the street outside Sham Shui Po Police Station on Saturday night.
On Saturday afternoon, hundred of protesters marched from Tsun Yip Street Playground in Kwun Tong to Zero Carbon Building in Kowloon Bay.
Saturday's clashes came even as Mrs Lam said in a Facebook post, titled We Are All Tired, that her meeting earlier in the day with dozens of prominent individuals, including university heads and former Secretaries, was for participants to suggest ideas for her proposal to set up a platform for dialogue.
"My proposal to society to have a platform for dialogue has earned a lot of doubts and criticism. I know in the current deadlock, the anger in the community is very deep. Some citizens are highly unsatisfied and even infuriated that the government is unable to fully meet all five of their demands.
"I'm not hoping that the dialogue will easily resolve the gridlock, stop clashes during protests or provide solutions to the situation, but prolonged fighting is not the way out," she wrote.
The unhappiness in society has been rising and could breed hatred, Mrs Lam wrote, adding that "after more than two months' of escalated protests, we are all tired, can we just sit and talk?".
Earlier on Saturday morning, a group of protesters who are members of the League of Social Democrats assembled outside the front entrance of the Government House, ahead of the meeting called by Mrs Lam. They were then directed by police officers to the back of the building.
Mrs Lam had told the media earlier this week that the government would have a meeting with prominent figures to discuss the setting up of a “platform for dialogue” to resolve the political crisis.
Names floated in local media include former chief secretary Henry Tang, ex-transport chief Anthony Cheung, former Legco president Tsang Yok Sing, Cardinal John Tong, and university heads Stephen Cheung and Ronald Chin.
But the protest group criticised that the individuals invited to this meeting will not be able to produce a channel for genuine dialogue with the people.
RTHK reported that one of the participants of the meeting, politician Raymond Mak Ka Chun, noted that the session was peaceful and sincere, but he said it is not advisable for the government to communicate directly with protesters.
He said that the government should let the different spectrums of society communicate and calm down first before having dialogue.
Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move, train operator MTR Corporation stopped operating trains along a large stretch of the Kwun Tong line from noon on Saturday (Aug 24), ahead of a march which kicked off at 1.30pm.
The Kwun Tong line resumed normal services only at 11.45pm on Saturday. Some gates in Kowloon Bay and Kwun Tong stations were damaged.
MTR, which has come under fire by Chinese state media for helping protesters escape from the police, said it suspended train services and closed stations along the Kwun Tong line to ensure the safety of passengers and staff.
While many protesters reached the destination at the Zero Carbon Building in Kowloon Bay, a group broke away to the nearby Ngau Tau Kok police station where they set up barricades to block the road, in a stand-off with the police, which later turned into clashes, prompting the authorities to fire tear gas at the demonstrators.
A police statement said the protesters have started fires and hurled bricks at police officers, noting that their acts posed a serious threat to public safety.
"After repeated warnings to the protesters went futile, police officers have deployed tear gas and minimum force to disperse protestors outside Ngau Tau Kok division police station," the police said in a statement.
Earlier, dozens of riot police in full gear were seen earlier outside the station but most retreated to nearby Sui Yip Street and were in the area of Telford Plaza.
In the same district, a separate group of protesters had earlier gathered outside Kwun Tong Station chanting "hak seh wui" or triads in Cantonese, in a reference to the police for the latter's suspected ties to gangsters.
The police said the protesters have set up barricades with water-filled barriers, bamboo sticks and other objects outside the street of the station, causing traffic congestion and affecting the emergency services in the area.
"Some violent protesters maliciously damaged lampposts on Sheung Yuet Road, Kwun Tong and vandalised government properties, neglecting other road users’ safety," said the force.
March organiser Ventus Lau blasted the MTR's decision and warned that the train operator not only inconvenienced people across East Kowloon, but also possibly put participants in danger given that there is no way for them to leave the area after the protest, RTHK reported.
"I think people will be very angry, and this anger will be targeted towards MTR as well," he said. "MTR is trying to suppress the freedom of expression of the people."
On Friday, the High Court granted an interim injunction to the train operator to prevent anyone “from unlawfully and wilfully obstructing or interfering with the proper use of the stations and trains of the railway network”.
In recent weeks, including at Kwai Fong Station on Thursday, staff have been surrounded and verbally abused by protesters and station facilities were vandalised.
Away from Kowloon Bay, hundreds of pro-government protesters stood outside RTHK's Broadcasting House in Kowloon Tong along Broadcast Drive on Saturday afternoon, chanting slogans that criticised the broadcaster of biased coverage.
It was business as usual for Hong Kong’s public transportation to the airport, despite plans by protesters to carry out a non-cooperative campaign to cut off access to the airport from 7am to 11am.
Reuters reported that those seeking to enter the terminal had to show valid boarding passes and passports.
This, after the Airport Authority took out a court order to prevent demonstrations at the airport, which forced the airport to shut down for part of last week after protesters thronged the main terminal for several days, grounding around 1,000 flights and occasionally clashing with police.
The unrest in Hong Kong escalated in June when people protested against a highly contentious extradition Bill proposed by now embattled leader Mrs Lam. The Bill, which is now suspended, would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to jurisdictions, including mainland China, where critics say suspects could be subject to unfair trials.
But the anger has morphed into a wider movement for universal suffrage and an inquiry into what anti-government protesters say is the police’s abuse of power, among other things.
On Sunday, an assembly of police’s families is planned for 2pm while a gathering is planned at Tsuen Wan Park instead of the original plan for a march.
Police had rejected an application for a protest march in Kwai Fong on Sunday, citing the proximity of the planned route to a cross border bus terminal and police facilities.
Separately, the family of a British Consulate staffer whom they said was missing, has returned to Hong Kong after being detained in the mainland while returning from a work trip to Shenzhen.
The family of Mr Simon Cheng said in a Facebook post: “Simon has returned to Hong Kong; thanks you everyone for your support! Simon and his family wish to have some time to rest and recover, and will not take any interview for the moment. We would ask media and friends to give them some time and space, and we will explain more later.”
Mr Cheng was not seen since Aug 8, when he said he was returning to Hong Kong on the high-speed railway. The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed last week that he was being held under “administrative detention” for 15 days for breaking a public security law.
Chinese state media the Global Times said the detention came about after Mr Cheng visited a prostitute but this was dismissed by his family as “made up”.
Following this episode, the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong on Friday temporarily banned its staff from work trips to the mainland.