Saturday, October 24

Twin rallies after tear gas clashes in Hong Kong tourist district


Usually brimming with tourists, Tsim Sha Tsui was filled with acrid plumes of tear gas as small groups of hardcore protesters battled police. – AFP photo

Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong defied Chinese authorities with a new rally on Sunday, a day after police fired tear gas to disperse them in one of the city’s most renowned tourist districts.

Tsim Sha Tsui, a harbourside district known for its luxury malls and hotels, was filled with acrid plumes of tear gas Saturday night as small groups of hardcore protesters battled police in streets usually brimming with tourists and shoppers.

Semi-autonomous Hong Kong has seen two months of protests and clashes triggered by opposition to a planned extradition law that quickly evolved into a wider movement for democratic reforms.

Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing this week signalled a hardening stance. Dozens of protesters were charged with rioting and the Chinese military said it was ready to quell the “intolerable” unrest if requested.

But the largely leaderless protest movement remains unbowed.

On Sunday afternoon, the first of two planned marches kicked off in Tseung Kwan O district — and there also are plans for a citywide strike on Monday, making further clashes all but inevitable.

“I’m more worried than hopeful,” Florence Tung, a 22-year-old trainee lawyer who was among the thousands marching through Tseung Kwan O, told AFP.

“It’s like no matter how much us citizens do, we cannot change the government,” she added, referring to the city’s unelected pro-Beijing leaders.

Kai Hou, a 41-year-old education worker, said he disagreed with the tactics of more hardcore violent protesters but supported their overall goals.

“Not everyone may approve of their radical acts, but their goal is simple, they want to build a better Hong Kong,” he told AFP.

– Slingshots and tunnels –

A second march later Sunday will try to end in a park near the Liaison Office, the department that represents China’s central government in Hong Kong.

Two weeks ago, the office was pelted with eggs and paint in a move that infuriated Beijing and sparked the rapidly escalating warnings from the mainland.

The last fortnight has seen a surge in violence on both sides with police repeatedly firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse increasingly hostile projectile-throwing crowds.

A group of government supporters also attacked demonstrators, putting 45 people in hospital, with many accusing the police of being too slow to respond.

In Tsim Sha Tsui, masked demonstrators smashed the windows of cars in a police parking lot and used a large slingshot to launch bricks at the building.

Others put up barricades on busy shopping thoroughfares and temporarily blockaded a cross-harbour tunnel.

Police said they arrested “over 20 people”, bringing the total number of arrests to more than 200 since the protest movement exploded on 9 June.

– Temple tear gas –

Anger towards the police is at record levels with officers increasingly derided in chants as Beijing’s enforcers — although police deny using excessive force and say they are facing increasingly hardcore protesters.

In the early hours of Sunday, a large crowd of residents came out in support of the protesters after police made some arrests in the working-class district of Wong Tai Sin, which is famous for its Taoist temple.

Police used tear gas once more to disperse the crowds, many of whom were not wearing gas masks or goggles, unlike the more seasoned protesters.

However, earlier in the day tens of thousands of people filled a park to rally in support of the police, in a vivid illustration of the political polarisation coursing through Hong Kong.

Under the terms of the 1997 handover deal with Britain, Hong Kong has rights and liberties unseen on the Chinese mainland, including an independent judiciary and freedom of speech.

But many say those rights are being curtailed, citing the disappearance into mainland custody of dissident booksellers, the disqualification of prominent politicians and the jailing of pro-democracy protest leaders.

Public anger has been compounded by rising inequality and the perception that the city’s distinct language and culture are being threatened by ever-closer integration with the Chinese mainland.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has made few concessions beyond agreeing to suspend the extradition bill, and has shied away from public appearances.

Protesters are demanding her resignation, an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty for those arrested, a permanent withdrawal of the bill, and the right to elect their leaders. – AFP