Hong Kong enjoys rare calm as protests go without clashes

It is a far cry from recent weeks marked by tear gas and violence

Demonstrators near a police station in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, after a march in the residential district of Hung Hom, on Aug 17, 2019. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Thousands gather at Chater Park in downtown Hong Kong for a rally calling on the US and the UK to impose sanctions on Hong Kong officials who they said have suppressed rights and freedoms in the territory. ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG

Hong Kong enjoyed a brief respite yesterday, as demonstrations that kicked off an eleventh consecutive weekend of protests were free of violent clashes that have taken a toll on the Chinese city's economy and drew China's military presence across the border.

A march in the Kowloon neighbourhood of Hung Hom in the afternoon saw some demonstrators deviate from the approved route, but most cleared out by 8pm with plans to gather for another rally today at Victoria Park.

The majority of rallygoers, who numbered in the thousands, stopped at the approved end point at Whampoa MTR station.

"Today has been peaceful so far because there's been minimal police presence," said architect Vincent Choi. "I think whenever there are police, people will stay around as there's safety in numbers."

But dozens of more radical demonstrators broke off from the main group and headed towards To Kwa Wan, where they threw eggs and spray painted the walls of the workers' club of pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions (FTU).

These protesters lined up pineapples at the entrance of the club in a reference to the FTU's links to the 1967 leftist riots in which bombs, known locally as pineapples, were thrown by rioters.

Another group veered off to Hok Yuen Street and threw eggs at the office of pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong lawmakers Starry Lee and Ann Chiang, while others continued on to Mong Kok, where they briefly surrounded the Mong Kok police station, which put up netting to prevent objects from getting tossed in.

The FTU condemned the radical demonstrators in a statement that expressed "our outrage and strong condemnation of the protesters affecting the normal operation of the club".

Police said in a statement shortly after 7pm that a large group of protesters had surrounded the station, "aiming laser beams at police officers and hurled miscellaneous objects, posing a serious threat to the safety of police officers at scene".

Unlike past weekends where marches that started out peacefully descended into violence after protesters massed and attempted to barricade roads - prompting police to respond with tear gas and rubber bullets - black-clad protesters scattered last night without engaging riot police, who also pulled back soon after.

But the simmering tensions forced roughly nine in 10 shops along the Mong Kok stretch of Nathan Road to close early.

Ms Lily Hui, 45, a money changer on Shantung Street, who said business fell by two-thirds yesterday, blamed protesters for driving away tourists. A stallholder at nearby Ladies Market who gave his name as Mr Xie said there was about half as much traffic in the evening than most Saturdays.

A number of other peaceful rallies, including one that supported the Hong Kong government at Tamar Park in Admiralty, took place earlier yesterday.

But observers believe it is too early to say that the protests have calmed after crippling the airport last week and disrupting businesses.

"But I would not be surprised if the clashes become less frequent," said Associate Professor Dixon Sing of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, with protesters more wary of police tactics and wanting to minimise flare-ups.

"The police have sent undercover cops to infiltrate the front-line protesters," he pointed out.

The protests were triggered by a now-suspended extradition Bill which would have allowed the transfer of fugitives, including dissidents, to China and other jurisdictions.

Last week, images showed what appeared to be armoured personnel carriers and supply trucks parked in a sports stadium in Shenzhen city neighbouring Hong Kong after Beijing said the protests were beginning to show the "sprouts of terrorism", though state media said it was a military exercise unrelated to the unrest.

Yesterday morning, heavy showers did not stop thousands of teachers and students from showing up for a march that called for the Hong Kong government to address protesters' demands, including the full withdrawal of the Bill, an independent probe into allegations of police brutality and for more democracy in the territory.

Some Hong Kongers said they hoped but were unsure if the peace would hold on the streets.

Police have allowed a major rally at Victoria Park today but rejected a plan for a march from the park to Chater Garden in Central.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 18, 2019, with the headline Hong Kong enjoys rare calm as protests go without clashes. Subscribe