HONG KONG — Riot police, tear gas and water cannons spraying stinging blue dye sent protesters fleeing Sunday following another massive, unauthorized but initially peaceful march through Hong Kong, as authorities intensified their efforts to quash the unrest that has gripped the city for months.
Chants of “five demands, not one less” rang through the streets of central Hong Kong in the early afternoon as tens of thousands of demonstrators again defied a police ban to stage a large march through the city. Some demonstrators appealed to their former colonial ruler, Britain, and the United States to support their demands for democracy.
Tensions began escalating before sundown, when police fired rounds of tear gas to clear protesters who were occupying a key road. Masked groups in black retaliated by lobbing molotov cocktails and smoke bombs at police barricades outside government buildings, briefly setting them ablaze. Protesters also tore up bricks from the surrounding streets and hurled them at the buildings.
At night, clashes broke out between police supporters and the anti-government protesters in the eastern part of Hong Kong Island.
It was the 15th weekend of large demonstrations in the Chinese territory. Despite an intensifying police crackdown, limited concessions from the Hong Kong government and the sheer exhaustion of many protesters, the unrest shows no signs of abating as a sensitive political anniversary for China — the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party on Oct. 1 — draws closer.
Protesters at one point tore up a banner celebrating the anniversary and set it on fire. Elsewhere, protesters unfurled a banner of their own: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
“We are doing everything we can to fight, and yet we cannot see a victory for ourselves or even a future,” said a 35-year-old who helped hang the banner from a flyover. He asked to be identified only by his last name, Ho, for fear of arrest over his participation in the illegal march.
“Of course I am afraid to be arrested with every march I attend,” he said. “But there is no alternative to standing up for ourselves.”
The protests were sparked by a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. But they have since grown in scope and ambition, reviving a long-held aspiration for universal suffrage and the direct election of Hong Kong leaders.
Focus has shifted to the conduct of the Hong Kong police. Many have called for an independent investigation into their use of force against the protesters; the government has rejected the demand.
Demonstrations over the past months have underscored how Beijing has lost support among Hong Kong’s youths and even older groups — contrary to expectations during the 1997 handover.
Demonstrators have been appealing to Western nations for help while denouncing the mainland as an oppressive force akin to the Nazis.
A few hundred demonstrators gathered outside the British Consulate on Sunday, singing “God Save the Queen” and demanding that London do more to protect the former colony. Britain is a signatory to an agreement that allows Hong Kong to keep its unique status and relative freedoms from mainland China until 2047, 50 years after the handover.
Some in Hong Kong hold British National Overseas passports, granted before the handover. This document allows easy travel to Britain but does not give the holder legal residence or work rights. Some are calling on London to strengthen protections for this group.
The march Sunday afternoon swelled to tens of thousands moving through the streets of central Hong Kong, shutting down major roads and highways in scenes now familiar. Protesters early in the afternoon started dismantling metal railings and gearing up with gas masks and hard hats in anticipation of confrontation with riot police.
Some again vandalized entrances to subway stations, a source of protester fury over perceptions that the rail operator is conspiring with the government to stymie the rallies.
Protesters broke glass panels and dumped trash down the entrance to Admiralty, the station closest to government buildings and Harcourt Road, a normally busy road which they once again occupied until routed by police. They also set fire to the entrance of Wan Chai, a nearby subway stop.
Police warned protesters repeatedly that they were participating in an “unauthorized assembly” and ordered them to “stop their illegal acts immediately.” Police said they deployed tear gas and “specialized crowd management vehicles” to disperse protesters.
A water cannon that rolled down the street flanked by officers just before sundown sent protesters retreating and shouting in fear. The streets surrounding government offices were strewn with signs of their hasty departure: bags of bricks and broken respirators, along with empty bottles of saline solution used to flush tear gas from eyes. Graffiti cursing the police was scrawled on walls and roads.
Plastic barriers splashed with red paint at the entrance to a nearby subway station were piled with other debris. Inside the sprinkler system sent water pouring onto the floor while speakers played a recorded announcement directing people to leave.
A relatively new chorus heard through the skyscrapers was “Glory to Hong Kong,” a song written a few weeks ago that has quickly become the movement’s anthem. The composer of the song, who has been identified as Thomas, posted the lyrics and music in late August to the online LIHKG forum popular among protesters.
A crowdsourced effort then ensued to tweak and improve the song, which has been uploaded to YouTube with video of rousing scenes and key moments of the months-long protest movement.
Thousands have gathered in shopping malls around Hong Kong in recent days to belt out the song. When “March of the Volunteers,” the Chinese national anthem, was played before a World Cup qualifying soccer match on Tuesday between Hong Kong and Iran, supporters turned their backs, flipped middle fingers and booed. Later, “Glory to Hong Kong,” echoed through the stadium concourse.
Hong Kong, which is not an independent or sovereign country, has no national anthem of its own. Many here reject the Chinese national anthem and have mocked and jeered it at public events for years. After the protests over the extradition bill began in June, the government delayed a bill that would criminalize mockery of the Chinese anthem.
Protesters are marching under an intensifying threat of arrest and prosecution. Police said Thursday they had arrested 1,365 people so far between the ages of 12 and 76 since the start of the protests. More were arrested over the weekend.
One lawyer in her early 20s said she waited to join the movement until it seemed as if there were enough people participating, out of fear she would be picked up by police.
“We are so traumatized,” said the woman, who declined to be named. “After all these months of tear gas, violence and arrest, we need no reminders of the risks.”