Mostly young, masked demonstrators block key roads as city braces for rally on landmark date
Anti-government protesters in Hong Kong took over key roads early on Monday amid rising tensions ahead of what expected to be a huge pro-democracy rally on the anniversary of the city’s handover to China, The Guardian reports.
The semi-autonomous city has been shaken by historic demonstrations in the past month, when protesters have demanded the withdrawal of a bill that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.
While an official ceremony took place at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre to mark the 22nd anniversary of the return of sovereignty from Britain to China, tensions spiked once more in the financial hub after hundreds of mainly young, masked protesters mostly in black wearing hard hats and goggles seized three key thoroughfares, some deploying metal and plastic barriers to block the way.
Rows of riot police with helmets and shields faced protesters on Harcourt Road, the main thoroughfare, and a couple of the side streets in the area. Hundreds of protesters shouted “retract the evil law” in the torrential rain at one point.
One protester told the Guardian he was pepper-sprayed by riot police in the early morning when he was among dozens of protesters advancing towards the police line. His friends were dabbing water on his skin, which was still red and hurting.
“We were lucky we didn’t get seriously hurt as police were using batons to hit people — we shielded ourselves with umbrellas,” he said.
On Lung Wo Road, some protesters dug up bricks and built make-shift barricades from roadside metal railings.
The ongoing rallies are the latest manifestation of growing fears that China is stamping down on the city’s freedoms and culture with the help of the finance hub’s pro-Beijing leaders.
Although Hong Kong was returned from British to Chinese rule on 1 July, 1997, it is still administered separately under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”.
The city enjoys rights and liberties unseen on the autocratic mainland, but many residents fear Beijing is already reneging on that deal.
While top officials attend a ceremony on 1 July every year to mark the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover of sovereignty from the UK to China, a large anti-government protest also takes place on the same day, with protesters calling for greater democratic freedoms – such as the right to elect the city’s leader.
There have been large-scale protests in Hong Kong in recent years, including a two-month occupation in 2014 – but have failed to win any concessions from Beijing.
If huge crowds gather today, as expected, this will be Hong Kong’s fourth mass protest in a month against a controversial extradition law.
This year’s rally comes against the backdrop of unprecedented anti-government protests over the past three weeks that have drawn millions and anger over police using tear gas and rubber bullets to clear crowds.
Millions have taken to the streets to protest against the proposed law allowing for the extradition of individuals for trial in mainland China, where the opaque court system is controlled by the Communist party.
The protests throughout June have been largely peaceful, but on 12 June, the scene turned violent when police used rubber bullets, teargas, pepper spray and batons to disperse crowds and some protesters threw objects back at the police. Protesters have also surrounded the police headquarters twice in past weeks in noisy and emotionally charged protests in which young people spray-painted obscenities on its front wall and barricaded its entrances.
On Sunday, police set up giant water-filled barricades in anticipation of overnight rallies by anti-extradition protesters to lock down the area where the handover anniversary ceremony was to take place.
While the spark for the current wave of protests was an attempt by chief executive Carrie Lam to pass the Beijing-backed extradition law, the demonstrations have morphed into a wider movement against Lam’s administration and Beijing.
Lam – who has kept out of the public eye since her climbdown and has record low approval ratings – struck a conciliatory note Monday at the ceremony marking the handover, saying a series of protests that have rocked her city have taught her that she needs to listen better to the youth and people in general.
Before toasting with Hong Kong and Chinese officials, including military figures, Lam also said Hong Kong benefited from China’s economic strength and wished for the “affluence of the motherland and the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.”
On Monday, the government announced that the flag-raising ceremony would be moved inside, rather than on the city’s harbour front, ostensibly due to inclement weather, but probably to avoid the loud protests outside the venue.
Eddy Chu Hoi-dick, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said while he worries about violence breaking out, he believes the young protesters in the leaderless protests have “consensus about when they should back down” and avoid arrest.
On Sunday, thousands of pro-government protesters rallied outside the government headquarters in support of the city’s police.
Many waved Chinese flags and hurled insults at anti-government demonstrators camped nearby, highlighting the deep ideological fissures now dividing the finance hub.