Protesters in Hong Kong took over roads and mounted makeshift barricades. | Kin Cheung/AP Photo
This story is being published by POLITICO as part of a content partnership with the South China Morning Post. It first appeared on scmp.com on Sep. 1, 2019.
Rampaging protesters reduced Hong Kong’s streets to charred battlefields on Saturday, setting off multiple fires and hurling petrol bombs at riot police who fought back by firing rounds of blue dye from water cannons and tear gas, as the city marked yet another weekend of heightened violence.Story Continued Below
Police fired two live rounds into the air to fight off a violent mob near Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, sources told the Post, as word spread of undercover officers mingling with the demonstrators.
The incident was just one of many shocking turns of the day on the 13th straight weekend of protests in the city.
Across various locations, elite “raptors” from the Special Tactical Squad fought pitched battles in smoke-filled streets with hard-core protesters, or chased after them, wrestling some to the ground as they made on-the-spot arrests.
Hard-core elements took their criminal acts to new extremes by lighting bonfires of cardboard and other flammable material, rubbish bins and any junk they could lay their hands on as they moved from one district to another leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, almost always a step ahead of police.
Defying a ban on demonstrations, they took over roads and mounted makeshift barricades from behind which they hurled bricks and petrol bombs at police lines.
They first began by besieging police headquarters in Wan Chai, throwing petrol bombs at the heavily barricaded building.
At one point, they surrounded the equally barricaded government headquarters and the Legislative Council compound, hacking down a fence with metal poles and throwing bricks at riot police standing watch inside, as others flashed laser pointers at officers.
By night-time, the demonstrators fanned out across the harbour to Kowloon, doing a flash mob protest in the tourist hub of Tsim Sha Tsui, setting off more fires along the main shopping artery of Nathan Road and its side streets.
A protester uses a shield to cover himself as he faces policemen in Hong Kong on Saturday. | Jae C. Hong/AP Photo
Riot police again charged at them and fired rounds of tear gas. The protesters dispersed and reappeared an hour later farther north in Mong Kok, in even larger numbers.
Across many parts of the city throughout the day, the shrill sirens of fire engines pierced the air. Overhead, Super Puma helicopters dispatched by the Government Flying Service zigzagged across Admiralty, Wan Chai and Central, the roar of their rotor blades mixing with the battle cries of protesters in a soundscape of a city at war.
“This is an example of the Hong Kong government and police suppressing us,” retiree and protester Michael Chu, in his 60s, said at Chater Garden as the choppers, which a government website said were used for “internal security and control of terrorist activities”, hovered above.
The MTR also suspended services at several stations throughout the day as the railway operator was armed with an injunction to shut down operations to prevent protesters from taking cover or using trains to move from one target to the next.
Still, that did not stop the mobs from vandalising several stations, including breaking a glass platform screen door at Wan Chai MTR station, jamming turnstiles at Admiralty and defacing walls there and at several stops, including Causeway Bay, Tin Hau and Fortress Hill.
By late night, sporadic but intense clashes between protesters and police moved to a new battlefield – MTR stations. In their hunt for protesters, officers were seen wielding their batons to club cowering commuters – some of whom wore masks – inside the cabin of one train at Prince Edward station. Several people were later seen bleeding and needing medical attention. At nearly midnight, the train operator suspended five of the network’s 10 lines.
The nearly 10 hours of mayhem kept the city on edge as Hong Kong marked the fifth anniversary of Beijing’s announcement of a restrictive electoral reform package on universal suffrage setting out how the city could elect its chief executive from a list of pre-vetted candidates. The announcement sparked the 79-day Occupy protests of 2014.
Police had banned Saturday’s demonstrations citing serious security concerns and organizers said they canceled the event but called on people to flash their cellphones at precisely 8.31pm to mark the fifth anniversary.
But the moment came and went unnoticed as protesters and police faced off in a what has become a regular routine of cat-and-mouse at multiple locations.
The day of defiance came in the wake of a police crackdown on prominent activists and three opposition lawmakers who were arrested on the eve of the banned march, all for alleged involvement in previous protests during the nearly three months of unrest that have rocked the city.
Earlier in the day, defying the police ban, large crowds – many donning their trademark black T-shirts and armed with their umbrellas – made their way, at first peacefully, through various streets of Hong Kong Island, taking over roads and chanting slogans such as “Save our freedom” and “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”.
Spotted in the crowds, too, were protesters who did not put on masks, openly daring police to arrest them for marching illegally.
But soon chaos reigned as radicals swarmed around the seat of government and finance in Admiralty and Central. The mob threw rocks, started fires and shined laser pointers at police officers behind a barricade at Legco.
By 5.30 p.m., police patience ran thin and the anti-riot water cannons came out, firing a relatively mild spray and rounds of tear gas to disperse the crowds, who fought back by lobbing yet more petrol bombs and sparking fires.
Barely an hour later, protesters armed with metal poles had found a weak link in the blue-and-white water barricades around Legco – a stretch of metal fencing – and began hacking at it.
The water cannons made another appearance and from a distance across the road sprayed jets of blue liquid mixed with pepper spray as riot police fired more tear gas at the protesters.
The mob dispersed in different directions and within minutes was all but gone, leaving the mounds of mangled metal fences, rubbish bins, traffic cones and other junk they had amassed.
Protesters had stormed Legco on July 1, on the 22nd anniversary of the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule.
In a scene reminiscent of the storming of the building then, when protesters used a metal cart as their battering ram to smash through Legco’s glass exteriors, a group appeared with a makeshift barricade made of a section of stadium seats.
Riot police advance during a pro-democracy protest in causeway bay in Hong Kong on Saturday. | Vincent Yu/AP Photo
They used this fortification to start a fire and within minutes, a large blaze was lit. Three explosions were heard as they then threw petrol bombs into the flames.
Earlier, protesters tried to go to the official residence of embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor but were turned away by a phalanx of riot police.
John Cheung Kwok-keung, a 30-year-old import-export businessman, was among the protesters out and about, distributing supplies including meal coupons, masks and T-shirts.
He said he had been doing so since the demonstrations began in June, his supplies paid for by well-to-do parents of young protesters. Cheung said he was not deterred by warnings about the marches being illegal.
“I still have faith in Hong Kong’s courts and judges that I will be vindicated even if police move to arrest me,” he said.
Another protester, fully masked, said: “I don’t care. I will do my best to escape, but if it’s my fate, so be it.”
Earlier in the day, protesters gathered at Southorn Playground in Wan Chai for a religious rally to “pray for sinners”, and they sang hymns before marching to Lam’s residence at Government House. The group insisted that as they were part of a religious event, they did not need police approval.
The “sinners” rally was organised after the Civil Human Rights Front cancelled a march from Central to Beijing’s liaison office in Western District after an appeals panel’s decision to uphold a police ban on the event.
They set off from the playground singing songs including “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”.
The only relatively safe area on Hong Kong Island during the day was Western district.
Police had ordered a lockdown, to protect the liaison office, with roads closed and public transport shut down by 1pm. Trams were suspended, the MTR service to Sai Yin Pun stopped and bus routes diverted.
The liaison office – all but surrounded by two-meter high water-filled barriers, and with several police vehicles stationed nearby – stayed pristine throughout.
Last Sunday, a policeman fired a live round into the air after he and colleagues were chased and beaten by a mob wielding iron poles in Tsuen Wan. This Sunday, protesters have vowed to…