(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong’s masses swarmed downtown areas in defiance of a police ban on Saturday, showing they’re ready to resist harsher measures by local authorities and Beijing to quash pro-democracy protests that have raged for almost three months.
Demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails and bricks, and set aflame a massive road block in the city center after tens of thousands marched and vowed to drag out disruptive anti-China protests until their demands were met. Some train stations were shuttered and subway services interrupted, while police warned the public to stay indoors and keep their windows shut in some areas as they use “appropriate force” to disperse demonstrators. Two warning shots were fired by police officers.
It’s the 13th straight weekend of historic political unrest in the Asian financial center as rallies over a now-suspended bill to allow extraditions to China widened into a push for greater democracy. The violence came after police denied permission for the mass rally and arrested several prominent pro-democracy activists, warning others could also be detained for taking part in unauthorized assemblies.
Numerous protesters on Saturday said those arrests -- which included Joshua Wong, who led an earlier wave of protests in 2014 -- had angered many and drawn people to the streets as they fight to preserve democratic freedoms. Some vowed to continue protests in coming days and said they were resorting to increasingly radical tactics, including targeting the city’s busy international airport, because the government didn’t listen after peaceful rallies of almost 2 million people.
“Hopefully they will hear us if we do these kind of aggressive actions,” said Cheung, a 23-year-old protester clad in goggles and a gas mask, who only gave his surname. “There’ve been lots of peaceful protests and there was no response from the government. That’s why we’re being more aggressive and trying to disrupt the Hong Kong economy,” he said as police fired tear gas nearby at protesters pelting the city’s Legislative Council complex with eggs and bricks.
The rally, called by the organizer of some of the city’s biggest protests, was canceled after failing to get police approval. It was originally planned to coincide with a decree from Beijing five years ago that dashed the hopes of many for true democracy in the former colony and helped set off the Occupy protest movement in 2014.
“We’re here to protest that decision and to tell the Chinese government we do not agree with anything that is a barrier to our democracy, our universal suffrage,” said a 21-year-old student protester, who only gave his first name, Hugo.
On Saturday, the Hong Kong government issued a formal statement on the issue, repeating that universal suffrage is the “ultimate aim,” but that election reforms will take place “in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.”
The ongoing unrest represents the biggest threat to Beijing’s oversight of Hong Kong since the return to Chinese rule in 1997, and is a geopolitical embarrassment for President Xi Jinping as his government gets set to celebrate 70 years of communist rule on Oct. 1.
As demonstrations drag out, protesters and the Hong Kong administration are being driven further apart. The government of Chief Executive Carrie Lam is refusing to rule out using a colonial-era emergency powers law, while demonstrators are ramping up disruptive protests as authorities stand firm on rejecting their demands for greater democracy.
The clashes on Saturday were some of the most tense so far, with police spraying water tinted with blue dye from water cannons. Tear gas fired at protesters in gas masks and hardhats were lobbed back at officers, along with petrol bombs and bricks.
Protesters later assembled a massive roadblock of plastic barricades and metal railings, as well as stands and fencing from a nearby park, before setting it on fire in the middle of Hennessy Road, a main thoroughfare that cuts through the city’s Wan Chai area. The fire sent thick plumes of black smoke into the air before firefighters extinguished the blaze.
“The main objective of the fire is, first, to show that we are willing to fight,” said a university student who only gave his surname, Lau, as the fire blazed a block away. “The second objective is that we’ve formed a very major barricade for the police to overcome before they can charge toward us. This will give our frontline fighters more time to leave because a lot of protesters are being arrested already.”
The gunshots were fired minutes apart shortly after 9 p.m. Hong Kong time as there were “serious threats” to the lives of its officers, Yolanda Yu, a police senior superintendent, said at a briefing early Sunday morning.
Many demonstrators who participated in a peaceful march through the city left as clashes started. They came out in the pouring rain despite the police ban that exposed many of them to potential arrest.
“They are trying to scare us, but I’m ready to be arrested,” said Philip, a 60-year-old pastor who only gave his first name and marched with his wife and two children. He said that he didn’t want to see clashes between protesters and police.
Ronny Tong, a member of Lam’s advisory Executive Council, said in an interview on Friday that many Hong Kongers want to see demonstrators punished for the more violent protests that have occurred throughout the ongoing unrest.
“We are a very pluralistic society and there’s been a very loud cry from different sectors of the community who have called for the arrest of the ringleaders of people who have been rioting in the streets, you know, committing arson and assaulting police officers,” he said.
--With assistance from Chloe Whiteaker.
To contact the reporters on this story: Iain Marlow in Hong Kong at email@example.com;Aaron Mc Nicholas in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org;Fion Li in Hong Kong at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Shamim Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org, Stanley James
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