A peaceful rally in Hong Kong has descended into chaos as police fired teargas and water cannon at protesters who hurled petrol bombs, set fires and clashed with residents.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators defied a police ban and marched on the seat of the government calling for greater democracy in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Hundreds of protesters who splintered off from the march surrounded the government complex, throwing rocks and molotov cocktails, prompting riot police to respond with multiple rounds of teargas as well as water cannon that covered demonstrators in blue dye, meant to help identify protesters for arrest later.
In a statement, the police said they deployed teargas, rubber bullets, sponge rounds and “crowd management vehicles” on demonstrators participating in an “unauthorised assembly”. It also said two police officers withdrew pistols at one point when they were attacked by around 20 protesters who hurled petrol bombs at them.
The Hong Kong government issued a late night statement “severely condemning the violent acts which totally disregard law and order.”
Skirmishes broke out in various locations across Hong Kong as protesters scattered after the police dispersal. In the residential area of Fortress Hill, men in white T-shirts beat people with rods and stools. Lam, a 30-year-old man who asked to only give his surname, was knocked to the ground and kicked repeatedly by a group of men.
“I saw men rushing out of [metro] station with chairs to hit … they were doing the beating. I yelled, ‘someone is beating [people] and they rushed me … and beat me,” he said.
Fights also broke out in the nearby neighbourhood of North Point, a pro-government district where dozens of local residents jeered at riot police who arrived at the scene to break up the fights. Pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui was arrested late night for obstructing police after he tried to persuade them to release a couple, reported public broadcaster RTHK. A university student reporter was also taken away by police for having a knife in his bag, even though he claimed it was for cutting moon cakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival the night before, RTHK said.
Sunday’s clashes came after ugly scenes of brawls between anti-government and pro-Beijing demonstrators on Saturday, marking the 15th consecutive weekend of mass protests that have roiled Hong Kong for the last three months.
Much of the demonstrations are centred on public anger toward the police as authorities crack down harder on protesters by force. More than 1,000 people have been arrested.
“Please tell the world,” said Lo, 41, who lives in Fortress Hill, where bystanders yelled at the police to leave. “We are suffering. We are scared every day when the police come out.”
The demonstrators, many of them young students, have also become more violent. On Sunday, they set fires outside a metro station and smashed glass windows and display cases inside the stations. Video footage posted online showed what appeared to be a group of black-clad demonstrators mobbing a man. In another, a group was seen beating up a young man.
Crowds of demonstrators had marched earlier in the day, chanting “Resist Beijing, liberate Hong Kong”. Many held up their right hands in reference to the five demands of the protesters, which include an independent investigation into police behaviour.
The protests mark Hong Kong’s – as well as Beijing’s – most serious political crisis in decades, triggered by a proposal to allow extradition to mainland China. As the protests have dragged on, confrontations between police and protesters have become increasingly violent.
“If we fail this time, we will not have a second chance. Our civil society will be repressed by the Chinese Communist party. So we have to keep going,” said Gerald Chan, 24, a master’s student who was wearing reflective goggles and held a shield improvised from street signs.
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has said she will permanently withdraw the controversial bill but the demonstrations have expanded to take on new demands, including an independent investigation into the police and implementation of universal suffrage.
“This is not the Hong Kong we know,” said Tim Cheng, 42, a father of two, who said the demand he most wanted to see met was the inquiry into police behaviour. “When I was young, my parents and teachers told me that if I was in trouble to contact the police. Now I can’t tell my kids that.”
Earlier on Sunday, hundreds of pro-democracy protesters had gathered outside the British consulate in Hong Kong chanting “we will not surrender” as they called on the UK to come to the aid of the former British colony, handed over to Chinese control in 1997.
Demonstrators waved the union flag, sang God Save the Queen and chanted “Stand for freedom, stand with Hong Kong”.
China has called the handover agreement signed by the UK and China in 1997 – the joint declaration – a “historical document” with “no practical significance”.
Chinese officials have lashed out at the UK for signalling its support of Hong Kong. A UK Foreign Office spokeswoman in June said the document was a “legally binding treaty … that remains as valid today as it was when it was signed”.
Beijing and pro-China figures in Hong Kong have previously accused foreign powers including the US and the UK of secretly funding and organising the rallies.
On Saturday, Joshua Wong, the democracy activist and former student leader of the 2014 umbrella movement in Hong Kong, called on US officials to include Hong Kong and a human rights clause in ongoing negotiations as the US and China try to resolve a long-running trade war and for lawmakers to pass legislation that could sanction Hong Kong officials.
On Sunday, families, middle-aged and elderly residents, marched, chanting “Reclaim Hong Kong!” and held signs that said “Guard the next generation”.
“We owe them a lot, they have sacrificed a lot. For us, just going out to the protests is the minimum we can do,” said Des, 50, a demonstrator who often comes to protests with his 11-year-old son.
“This is our last chance. You can see the momentum. People are still coming out. We need to take this one last chance.”
Additional reporting by Verna Yu