(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong today saw one of its most violent days since protests began in June, with clashes involving police and protesters leaving downtown paralyzed, transportation networks hobbled and two men clinging to life.
The chaos started early on Monday when demonstrators, still angry after the first protest-related death on Friday, moved to disrupt the morning commute. A scuffle ensued outside a subway station in which a police officer shot a protester at point blank, all of which was caught on a video that went viral within moments. He’s currently in intensive care.
The shooting spawned calls for a flash mob at noon in Central, where protesters blocked roads in one of Hong Kong’s premier shopping districts. Police fired tear gas to clear them out, leading to chaotic scenes of office workers ducking into luxury malls to wash out their eyes with water.
Around the same time, video emerged of a man doused with petrol and lit on fire. Hu Xijin, an editor with China’s state-run Global Times newspaper, said the victim had “openly disagreed with radical protesters” at the time of the attack. He’s currently in critical condition, according to hospital authorities, who said almost 50 people were injured.
The shocking videos raised fears that things could get even worse, as the pro-democracy protests show no signs of letting up after five months of increasingly violent demonstrations opposing Beijing’s grip over the city. Hong Kong stocks on Monday saw their biggest loss in about three months, banks sent people home early and the Hong Kong Jockey Club closed all off-course betting branches, underscoring fears about an economy already in recession.
Later in the day, the University of Hong Kong canceled all classes on Tuesday. Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union urged a suspension of all classes at schools and kindergartens, according to a statement on its Facebook page.
“We’re afraid that the escalation is really on both sides, but more so on the police side,” said Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy lawmaker who has mediated between police and protesters during the city’s unrest. “It will become more chaotic and more violent -- that seems to be inevitable.”
Hong Kong’s government urged in a statement Monday afternoon for protesters to remain “calm and rational.” Chief Executive Carrie Lam, whose move to introduce legislation allowing extraditions to the mainland initially sparked the protests, on Monday called it “wishful thinking” that violence would prompt her to make any concessions such as an independent inquiry into police violence or for the ability to pick and choose their own leaders.
“I’m making this statement clear and loud here -- that will not happen,” she said in an address, flanked by members of her cabinet. “Violence is not going to give us any solution to the problems that Hong Kong is facing. Our joint priority now as a city is to end the violence and to return Hong Kong to normal as soon as possible.”
The police defended the officer who fired his weapon, while suspending another who deliberately rode his motorcycle into a group of demonstrators. Police dismissed as “totally false and malicious” online rumors that they had ordered officers to use their firearms “at will.”
The reinvigorated violence followed a weekend of demonstrations that resulted in almost 90 arrests. Demonstrators angered over the death Friday of a student who was injured earlier near a recent clash between police and protesters vandalized shops and train stations while throwing Molotov cocktails at a police station, blocking roads, hurling objects at police.
“Police reiterate that no violent behavior will be tolerated,” the police said in a statement. “Police will continue to take resolute enforcement action so as to safeguard the city’s public safety and bring all lawbreakers to justice.”
The student who died Friday suffered a brain injury after falling from a parking garage near a demonstration where police used tear gas to disperse a crowd. Hong Kong police officials denied reports that officers had chased and pushed the student. A memorial drew tens of thousands of people.
Over the weekend, China reiterated that it would ensure only people loyal to it will become Hong Kong’s chief executive. The majority of representatives in Hong Kong’s cabinet, judiciary and legislative bodies should also support the central government, Zhang Xiaoming, China’s top official overseeing Hong Kong affairs, said in a post on the agency’s website.
The inability to implement Article 23 -- the section of Hong Kong’s Basic Law requiring legislation prohibiting treason and subversion against the Chinese government -- and its failure to set up units to follow through were the main reasons separatist movements are on the rise, Zhang said. In 2003, the Hong Kong government halted implementation after protests drew hundreds of thousands of people.
Anger over police tactics in the latest protests that have injured demonstrators has been a major focus of recent rallies. Hong Kong’s police watchdog has neither the authority nor the resources to effectively investigate the ongoing protests in the city, according to the Independent Expert Panel brought in to advise it.
The panel saw “a shortfall” in the powers of the Independent Police Complaints Council, according to a statement posted on the Twitter account of panel member Clifford Stott, a dean for research at Keele University in England. In July, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Lam tasked the IPCC with conducting a fact-finding study into the unrest after growing public concern about police behavior and tactics.
The five experts of the panel were announced in September by the IPCC to advise the council as the rift between the government and protesters widened, with activists including the establishment of an independent inquiry into police conduct as one of their five demands.
“There’s a requirement for the IPCC to have increased capacity if it’s going to address the scale of events in question,” Stott said by phone. “We’re calling for that as a matter of urgency.”
(Adds HKU canceling Tuesday classes, union urging schools’ suspension in sixth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Fion Li, Aaron Mc Nicholas and Stephen Tan.
To contact the reporters on this story: Natalie Lung in Hong Kong at email@example.com;Iain Marlow in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org
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