Thousands in HK take to the streets to defy mask ban; tear gas fired after protests turn violent

Riot police combing alleys to search for protesters in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, on Oct 6, 2019. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Protesters getting ready to face off with police in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, on Oct 6, 2019. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

HONG KONG - Protesters took to the streets on a soggy Sunday (Oct 6) in defiance of a face mask ban but largely peaceful marches descended into clashes with police later in the day.

The ban on using face masks in public assemblies, which came into effect on Saturday, was enacted using colonial-era emergency legislation, and those in breach face up to a year in prison.

Amid a steady downpour, thousands marched from the Causeway Bay shopping district on Hong Kong Island to the central business district, as a similar march took place across the harbour in the Tsim Sha Tsui area.

The crowd had turned up in spite of the metro network being only partially opened because of damaged facilities after protesters targeted stations. A number of the shut stations are near protest targets, including government offices and police stations.

While many protesters wore surgical or plain black masks, some were more creative, wearing masks of Guy Fawkes, made popular by the movie V For Vendetta, and comics character The Joker.

Many were also chanting a new slogan, "Hong Kongers, revolt", a change from the usual refrain of "Hong Kongers, come on!".

After several hours of marching in the rain, some protesters started hurling bricks into the police headquarters from a flyover in Wan Chai, prompting officers to respond with volleys of tear gas from the building's back entrance and roof.

Several rounds of tear gas were also fired at a group of protesters at Hennessy Road who were throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails at riot police. Similar scenes were also repeated on the Kowloon peninsula as police tried to disperse protesters, saying they were participating in unlawful assemblies.

Several black-clad protesters were subdued by riot police in Wan Chai as well as Causeway Bay, according to TV footage.

During the clashes, a television journalist from RTHK was hurt by a Molotov cocktail when his poncho caught fire, the public broadcaster said, adding that he was being treated for burns in a hospital.

Violence also broke out in Sham Shui Po, where a man, believed to be a taxi driver, was beaten up by a group of protesters after being dragged out of his vehicle, broadcaster RTHK reported. The man suffered head injuries. It was not clear what had happened before the assault.

The Hospital Authority said that as of 7pm, four people had been taken to hospital as a result of Sunday's activities, with three in serious condition.

As night fell, some gathered close to the People's Liberation Army barracks in Kowloon Tong where they shone laser pointers at the building.

In the first direct interaction between the PAL and protesters, troops raised a yellow flag with the arrest warning, Reuters reported.

"Warning, you are in breach of the law. You may be prosecuted", the banner in English and Chinese says. It is similar to those Hong Kong police use in dispersal operations.

While the Chinese military maintains a garrison in the city, the troops cannot act unless help is requested by the Hong Kong government.

Remote video URL

Continuing from Saturday's lockdown, malls and shops around the city, including Sogo department store, Fashion Walk and World Trade Centre in Causeway Bay as well as the IFC mall in Central, remained closed on Sunday. Sogo was the starting point for Sunday's march.

The city is now in its 18th week of unrest after what began as protests against a contentious extradition Bill evolved into anti-government protests calling for greater democracy. While the Bill has now been withdrawn, protesters continue to demand the right to elect their own leaders, with their latest demand being the right to wear masks.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the ban was a means to bring an end to the unrest, but tensions have soared since the ban was announced on Friday.

The government condemned the actions of what it called "masked rioters", adding that the face mask ban was aimed at de-escalating the violence and chaos, warning Hong Kongers not to test the law.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.