HONG KONG (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AP) - Hong Kong police fired water cannons and volleys of tear gas to break up protesters throwing petrol bombs and bricks near the Legislative Council (LegCo) building and central government offices on Sunday (Sept 15), the latest in weeks of sometimes-violent unrest.
One water-cannon truck parked behind water-filled barriers surrounding the government headquarters complex caught fire after being hit by a petrol bomb, but the flames were quickly put out by police.
After repeated warnings failed to disperse the protesters, police fired water cannons laced with blue dye as well as volleys of tear gas to break up the demonstrators. In other countries, dye is added to the water to help identify protesters later.
Meanwhile, the LegCo Secretariat issued a red alert informing all persons to evacuate the LegCo Complex immediately.
Some protesters also threw bricks at police outside the nearby Chinese People’s Liberation Army base in the city and tore down and set fire to a red banner proclaiming the 70th anniversary on Oct 1 of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Elsewhere, radical protesters vandalised the Admiralty MTR station by smashing glass panes there and blocking the station's entrances with water-filled barriers, chairs and other objects, according to local TV footage. Other protesters were setting fires at various locations in Central and Admiralty.
Later in the evening, Admiralty, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay stations were closed, with transport operator MTR Corp citing “a sudden escalation in the situation”. Protesters had earlier damaged the MTR station in Wan Chai, a busy district on Hong Kong island.
Earlier on Sunday, tens of thousands of demonstrators chanted slogans and marched through the downtown shopping district of Causeway Bay, in defiance of a police ban.
A mixed crowd of hardcore protesters in black and wearing masks, along with families with children, spilled onto the roads of the shopping belt. Some waved US and British flags, while others carried posters reiterating their calls for democratic reforms.
The march disrupted traffic and many shops, including the Sogo department store as well as Hysan Place and World Trade Centre shopping malls, closed their doors, local broadcaster RTHK reported.
As the crowd approached the police headquarters nearby, police raised a flag warning that they were participating in an illegal gathering but protesters just shouted slogans and kept walking.
On Hennessy Road, some protesters were setting up barricades using objects such as traffic cones, rubbish and recycling bins, water-filled barriers and metal railings, local TV footage showed. Some of those who had reached Central after marching from Causeway Bay had taken over part of Harcourt Road in Central.
In a statement, police said that protesters gathering at Causeway Bay were blocking the carriageways at Hennessy Road, Queensway and Des Voeux Road Central, and were committing the offence of “participating in an unauthorised assembly”. It appealed to members of the public to leave immediately.
The Civil Human Rights Front – the organiser of several historically large, but peaceful rallies earlier this summer – had cancelled its plan to march through the city centre on Sunday after the authorities upheld a ban on the gathering. Police cited violence around previous protests, saying that the route was too close to “high-risk buildings” including government offices and metro stations.
Protesters, however, turned up in Causeway Bay on Sunday anyway.
“I think the momentum for this protest activity is still going,” said Peter, a 30-year-old student who declined to give his surname as he came out to protest. “You see, the government is just answering the one demand. They (the police) are arresting our children. We are asking for five demands, not one less.”
The protests were triggered by an extradition Bill that many saw as an example of China’s increasing intrusion and a chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms and rights, many of which are not accorded to mainland China.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam promised this month to withdraw the Bill, which would have allowed some criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial, but protesters have continued to press on with their four other demands including an inquiry into alleged police brutality as well as universal suffrage.
There have been increasing clashes between protesters and Hong Kong’s police, who demonstrators have accused of abuses. More than 1,300 people have been arrested since protests from June onwards.
The unrest has battered Hong Kong’s economy, which was already reeling from the United States-China trade war. It is also seen as an embarrassment to China’s ruling Communist Party ahead of Oct 1 National Day celebrations.
GETTING UK TO HELP
Earlier on Sunday, hundreds of protesters waved British flags, sang “God save the Queen” and chanted “UK save Hong Kong” outside the British Consulate as they stepped up calls for international support for their campaign.
With banners declaring that “one country, two systems is dead”, they repeated calls for Hong Kong’s former colonial ruler to ensure the city’s autonomy is upheld under agreements made when it ceded power to China in 1997.
Demonstrators held similar rallies on Sept 1 at the British Consulate and last weekend at the US Consulate.
Beijing has accused foreign powers, particularly the US and Britain, of fomenting the unrest, and told them to mind their own business.
Britain says it has a legal responsibility to ensure China abides by the 1984 declaration.
“The Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty between the UK and China that remains as valid today as it was when it was signed and ratified over 30 years ago,” a British Foreign Office spokesman said in June.
“As a co-signatory, the UK government will continue to defend our position” she said.
But it was not immediately clear what Britain could or would want to do defend that position. It is pinning its hopes on closer trade and investment cooperation with China, which since 1997 has risen to become the world’s second-largest economy, after it leaves the European Union at the end of next month.
Police also banned a planned Civil Human Rights Front march on Aug 31, but protesters turned up anyway. Clashes erupted that night, with police storming a metro carriage and hitting passengers and protesters with batons and firing pepper spray.
On Saturday (Sept 14), pro-democracy protesters and supporters of the central government in Beijing clashed at a shopping mall and several public places. Police arrested more than a dozen people and hospital authorities said 25 were injured.
The clashes amid the mid-autumn festival holiday came after several nights of peaceful rallies that featured protesters belting out a new protest song in mass singing at shopping malls. Thousands of people also carried lanterns with pro-democracy messages in public areas and formed illuminated human chains on two of the city’s peaks last Friday night to mark the major Chinese festival.
Hong Kong’s air traffic declined last month as protests took a toll on the city.
Hong Kong International Airport handled six million passengers in August, down 12.4 per cent from a year earlier, according to figures published by the Airport Authority on Sunday. It said the decline was mainly due to lower visitor numbers. It also said that there was a significant fall in passenger traffic to and from mainland China, South-east Asia and Taiwan.
“In the past few months, there have been huge challenges to airport operations at times,” executive director of airport operations C. K. Ng said in a statement.
The airport has become a focal point of the more than three months of unrest in the city, with protesters staging sit-ins and at times bringing operations to a halt. The Airport Authority has since obtained injunctions against people holding demonstrations there and blocking roads.
Tourism to Hong Kong declined almost 40 per cent in August from a year earlier, Financial Secretary Paul Chan wrote in a blog post last weekend. That was the worst drop since the 2003 Sars epidemic. Mr Chan wrote last Sunday that the government would increase annual spending on construction in areas such as public housing and hospitals to HK$100 billion (S$18 billion) over the next few years.