Hong Kong protesters clash with riot police after massive democracy rally

Nicola Smith
Demonstrators walk out onto Harcourt Road during a protest in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong, China, on Sunday, July 21, 2019. - Bloomberg

Hundreds of riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets as they clashed with masked protesters in downtown Hong Kong last night after demonstrators threw eggs and vandalised China’s liaison office to the city, in a direct challenge Beijing’s authority.

In a night of chaos, protesters returning home from a mass rally were also bloodied by a gang of stick-wielding assailants in Yuen Long, Hong Kong’s western New Territories. 

A journalist recording the attack - widely presumed to be the work of pro-government vigilantes - was assaulted. Other victims alleged police were slow to react.

Tensions had rapidly escalated after another huge anti-government march that organisers claimed was attended by 430,000 people, but police said peaked at 138,000.  It was the latest in a series of mass protests in a summer of discontent that was sparked by a contested extradition bill that could send suspects for trial in China.

Thousands of demonstrators ignored police orders to stop in the Wan Chai district, about a mile from the government’s Legislative Council, instead taking the authorities by surprise by besieging China’s official representation office.

Protesters blocked nearby roads with makeshift barricades and chanted “reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our times!”, while some sprayed “real democracy” and “universal suffrage” in black paint on the walls. edoms.   

Hundreds of thousands of protesters participant in anti-extradition bill march in Hong Kong on July 21, 2019 in Hong Kong Credit: Getty

The act of open resistance will infuriate Beijing, which many people fear is running out of patience with the protracted protest campaign, and riot police moved in forcefully to quickly clear the streets.

The efforts of a group of pensioners to placate officers with sunflowers charmed bystanders but did little to prevent the riot police armed with batons and shields from chasing demonstrators back through central thoroughfares towards the financial district and firing multiple rounds of tear gas.

In a tense stand-off under a flyover in the commercial district, protesters retaliated with paint, umbrellas and a few glass bottles. Bricks and poles were uprooted from pavements and steel fences thrown onto the road to block the advance of the police.

Legislators, including Roy Kwong, 36, who is emerging as a hero for protesters in the largely leaderless movement, approached the police front line, urging them to stand down, but they were rebuked by officers who shouted aggressive orders and gestured for them to leave.

Meanwhile, the attacks by unknown masked men at a train station in the New Territories sparked concern that the city's feared triad gangs are wading into the political conflict.

Footage showed the men attacking protesters on the platform and inside trains. Similar assaults by pro-government vigilantes took place against protesters during the 2014 "Umbrella Movement" protests.

“I just have no words for that,” Denise Ho, a singer and pro-democracy activist, told The Telegraph as the news filtered through. She accused the government “not facing the problem”, but instead hiding behind the police and “now gangsters who are beating up people randomly.” 

Anti-extradition bill protesters take part in a rally in Hong Kong, China, 21 July 2019. The organizer of the march, the Civil Human Rights Front, is urging the government to set up an independent commission of inquiry to be led by a judge Credit: Rex

The violence was a familiar pattern of what has become the global financial hub’s worst political crisis in recent history after six weeks of mass demonstrations and sporadic clashes between police and small groups of hardcore protesters.

Sunday’s rally was the seventh weekend in-a-row that that people have taken to the streets en masse.  What was initially a show of opposition to the extradition bill has now morphed into an outpouring of anger over Chinese rule and shrinking freedoms.

Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive and her government, have been unable to contain rising public anger that has now erupted into calls for democratic reforms, universal suffrage and more rights and freedoms.   

The police last week warned that they were trying to track down more than 700 core protesters who they believed were behind recent violent confrontations, including the bloody clashes in a shopping centre last Sunday and the trashing of the city’s legislature, reported the South China Morning Post.

The threat may have been intended to intimidate protesters but many remain defiant, if scared.

The demonstrators who surrounded the liaison office were largely young. “The government has shown no remorse for its actions and they want to silence our voices,” said a teenager called Edgar, 16. “I don’t have any hope for my future because I have lost faith in the government.”

However, the start of the rally, which kicked off with cheers from Victoria park, represented all generations in a sign of ongoing widespread public support for the campaign’s goals.   

A man waves a US and Hong Kong flag while standing on a divider after he and other protesters occupied Harcourt Road while marching against a controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong on July 21, 2019. Credit: afp

One bold demonstrator said he had travelled from mainland China where people were using Twitter to learn about the protest movement.

Calling himself Richard, he said he was “very happy” to be joining the first protest of his life.

“I think parents and the older generation in the mainland only think about leaving their children assets, money, and property, but parents in Hong Kong want to leave greater things like democracy and freedom,” he said.

“Hopefully Hong Kong will not become like China. It should maintain its status and distance itself from the Communist government,” he said.

But despite the prolonged protests, Hong Kong’s unelected leaders have barely conceded any ground to protesters' demands, refusing to fully withdraw the extradition bill rather than just suspend it.

Their refusal to budge has led to a stalemate with protest groups who have vowed to press ahead until their core demands are met, including the resignation of Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into heavy-handed police tactics and an amnesty for arrested demonstrators.

Protesters and police clashed after a mass rally in Hong Kong Credit: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

The government’s response so far had been “irresponsible” and was fuelling the protests said Alvin Leung, the leader of the Civic Party at the Legislative Council.

“At the end of the day it’s a political matter and it has to be settled politically. Right now, the government is basically sending police officers to the front line to deal with the protesters anger. And this is completely wrong,” he said.

Nathan Law, a leading member of the protest movement, Demosisto, accused the government of using the police as a “suppression tool.”

“The government is refusing to listen to the demands of the people so the people have to come out because they wanted to continue the pressure,” he said.

Few see a political solution to the crisis and some have raised concerns about a deepening polarisation between pro and anti-establishment supporters in Hong Kong.

In a statement, the government accused protesters of “storming” the liaison office even though they had not entered the building. It called events in Yuen Long “completely unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, despite strong public support for the protest, tempers were fraying on Sunday as demonstrators blocked narrow roads with no warning.

One irate driver ploughed through a plastic barricade after an angry confrontation, while a van driver who tried to break through a blockaded tunnel was pulled from the vehicle and his van destroyed.