HONG KONG (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong police fired tear gas to try to disperse democracy protesters marching on Saturday (Sept 21) after pro-China groups pulled down some of the “Lennon Walls” of anti-government messages in the Chinese-ruled city.
The marchers were heading for the government offices of Tuen Mun town, in the west of the New Territories, where some set fire to a Chinese flag on the ground.
Earlier, dozens of Beijing supporters tore down some of the large mosaics of colourful Post-it notes calling for democracy and denouncing perceived Chinese meddling in the former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
“I am a Chinese man,” one the pro-Beijing protesters shouted in defence of his actions when confronted by pro-democracy supporters.
The installations have blossomed across the Asian financial centre, at bus stops and shopping centres, under footbridges and along pedestrian walkways.
They have also occasionally become hot spots of violence in the city's three months of unrest.
Hong Kong's protests picked up in June over legislation, now withdrawn, that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial. Demands have since broadened into calls for universal suffrage.
A pro-Beijing city legislator, Junius Ho, who has been a vocal critic of the protests, had urged his supporters to clean up the approximately 100 "Lennon Walls around the city on Saturday.
The walls are named after the John Lennon Wall in communist-controlled Prague in the 1980s that was covered with Beatles lyrics and messages of political grievance.
However, in a message posted late on Friday on his Facebook page, Mr Ho said "for the sake of safety", the Lennon Walls would not be cleared up, only the streets.
"We will clean up the environment with a peaceful and rational attitude," he said.
Steve Chiu, who works in finance, said people like Ho would only give the pro-democracy movement fresh impetus.
“Through provocative acts like this, he helps unify the moderates and frontliners in the movement,” he told Reuters.
“It’s like a wave. Sometimes we’re in a trough and sometimes on a crest, and we’re rising again.”
At the Tuen Mun sports ground on Saturday, the stands were packed with anti-China demonstrators who watched masked players compete in a game of football in one of the more convivial events since protests began. The turnout for the second rally at the venue failed to match one in August when crowds packed the stands and filled the pitch.
The anti-government protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing on Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" formula that ensures freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including the right of assembly and an independent judiciary.
China says it is committed to the "one country, two systems" arrangement and denies interfering. It has accused foreign governments including the United States and Britain, of inciting the unrest.
The demonstrations have taken on their own rhythm over the months and now tend to peak on the weekends, often with anti-government activists, many masked and in black, throwing petrol bombs at police, trashing metro stations, blocking airport roads and lighting street fires.
At times, they have been confronted by supporters of Beijing wielding sticks.
More pro-democracy protests are planned this weekend including a sit-in on Saturday at a mall near the Yuen Long suburban subway station, marking two months since activists were attacked by a mob there.
The transit operator, MTR Corp, closed train stations near potential protest sites, including Yuen Long and Tuen Mun, for safety reasons.
Protesters had said on Friday that while they did not want violence, they would defend themselves if they were attacked.