HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters marked the new year Wednesday by marching in the tens of thousands to reiterate their calls for greater autonomy in the Chinese-controlled city, and denounce their government and the police.
The large gathering, the biggest seen in the territory in weeks, underscored the continued momentum behind the anti-government movement now in its seventh month. As Hong Kong authorities double-down on denials of wrongdoing and balk at charges that basic freedoms are being eroded, protesters say they will not back down or give up — setting the stage for more clashes that will continue to pose a major headache for Beijing, also contending with greater demands for autonomy in nearby Taiwan.
By late afternoon, police had fired tear gas against a group of protesters in the Wan Chai area and made arrests. Protesters meanwhile had spray-painted graffiti and smashed the glass fronts of HSBC branches along the route of the march, upset at the bank’s decision to shut down an account controlled by the anti-government activist group Spark Alliance. Last month, police froze almost $1 million raised by Spark Alliance in support of the movement.
As night fell, some protesters began throwing projectiles at police and building barricades against police, as the initially peaceful march turned chaotic and had its permit revoked by police.
Carrying signs calling for an independent investigation into police and for Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to step down, protesters set off from a park and traveled along a familiar route into central Hong Kong. Among them were the elderly and families with their children, shouting familiar chants like “Fight for freedom,” and “Stand with Hong Kong,” and reiterating the five demands of the protest movement, among them universal suffrage for the territory.
Pedestrians walk past an altered version of the HSBC Holdings logo painted by demonstrators during a protest in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on Wednesday.
The march was sanctioned by authorities. Shortly after 5:30 p.m., the police told the organizer of the rally, the Civil Human Rights Front, to dismiss the crowd, revoking their authorization for the rally. The thousands who remained in the park were barred from continuing the march.
“It is very important to show that our momentum is still strong as we start off the new year,” said Clement Chung, 26. “We need to show our endurance, and our perseverance.”
Marching alongside the protesters were representatives from dozens of newly formed pro-democracy labor unions representing industries from insurance to hospitality, hoping for sign-ups that will allow them to organize strikes and other disruptions in the new year. Over the past six months, protesters have frequently changed tactics to solicit a government response — from large peaceful marches to smaller, violent ones, sit-ins to general strikes — but authorities have only responded to one demand, the full withdrawal of the extradition bill that sparked the unrest back in June.
“We can try to push the movement to the next level, and increase our efforts for a general strike,” said Michael Chan, an organizer at the Catering and Hotel Industry Employees General Union, who was manning a booth encouraging people to sign up. “We want to tell laborers that it is possible for them to fight in their workplace, and to organize in their workplace to fight for democracy.”
Among the biggest and most emotive issues for many in Hong Kong continues to be the conduct of the police, who protesters believe have responded with brutality and unnecessary force to the unrest. Over the Christmas and New Year’s Eve holidays, police used crowd control weapons including tear gas and pepper spray to disperse and arrest small groups of protesters staging demonstrations in malls and shopping districts. Marchers shouted vulgarities and hurled insults at masked riot police Wednesday as they walked past them.
Responding to the march, a spokesman for the government said the procession was “generally smooth and orderly, with the majority of the members of the public expressing their views in a lawful, peaceful and rational manner.”
The Hong Kong government “has all along respected people’s rights and freedoms to participate in peaceful processions and assemblies and express views rationally, as these are the important core values cherished by Hong Kong people,” the spokesman added, appealing the crowd to “not to take part in any illegal or violent acts that may occur.”
A police officer holds a weapon during an anti-government demonstration on New Year’s Day to call for better governance and democratic reforms in Hong Kong.
The government in recent weeks has issued a flurry of rebuttals to civil society groups and watchdogs who have expressed concern over the behavior of the police. Authorities also issued a rebuttal to an investigation from The Washington Post that found that police have frequently broken their own internal guidelines, referencing leaked documents that detailed these guidelines and protocols around use of force.
The police “do not initiate actions against protesters and only respond with appropriate and proportionate force when protesters take part in illegal activities,” a government spokesman said. “The actions and response of police over the Christmas period, and at all times over the past six months, were only in response to the blatant disregard for public safety and order by radical protesters.”
By late afternoon, the New Year’s Day march was overwhelmingly peaceful, but turned chaotic at points after police subdued protesters who appeared to be vandalizing bank branches. Police appeared Wednesday to continue a tactic of using undercover plainclothes police officers to patrol the crowd. Authorities at one point fired pepper balls on protesters throwing empty bottles.
Surveys show that some in Hong Kong have come to understand protester violence, even if they do not explicitly condone it, in the face of police force and government inaction. Unlike previous mass demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2014, there has been a striking degree of solidarity between the more violent front-line protesters and the “wo lei fei” group, a Cantonese phrase meaning peaceful, rational and nonviolent.
“We understand the frustration of the young people,” said a 45-year old protester at Wednesday’s march who gave her last name as Fung. “We may not agree with their violence, but we see how it has come to this, and we have empathy.”
Published at Wed, 01 Jan 2020 02:38:00 +0000