Hong Kong riot police have fired teargas and deployed water cannon on pro-democracy demonstrators in the latest episode of political unrest to rock the city.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators defied a police ban and marched toward the seat of the government, chanting “Resist Beijing, liberate Hong Kong”.
Hundreds had gathered outside the government headquarters, setting up barricades and chanting: “Reclaim Hong Kong!” Some were throwing rocks and molotov cocktails. Riot police fired teargas from a footbridge, while a water cannon sprayed protesters and reporters with blue dye, meant to identify demonstrators for arrest later.
In a statement, the police said they deployed teargas and “crowd management vehicles” on demonstrators participating in an “unauthorised assembly”.
The complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has said her government will formally withdraw the bill that ignited months of protests. Hong Kong residents had feared it could be used by China to extradite people for political reasons. They want guarantees that it cannot be reintroduced at a later date.
Withdrawal of the use of the word 'riot' in relation to the protests
Protesters want the government to officially recognise that their movement has been a series of legitimate protests, rather than a riot, as has been stated in official communications.
Unconditional release of arrested protesters and charges against them dropped
Hundreds of people have been arrested in recent weeks, and the protesters are demanding that all of them be freed, and that no convictions should stand against any of them.
An independent inquiry into police behaviour
Police use of force has escalated since the demonstrations began, while protesters have also resorted to increasingly violent measures. Demonstrators say an inquiry into police brutality is the number-one priority.
Implementation of genuine universal suffrage
Hong Kong's chief executive is currently selected by a 1,200-member committee, and nearly half of the 70 legislative council seats are filled by limited electorates representing different sectors of the economy. The protesters want to be able to vote for their leaders in free and open democratic elections.
Crowds of demonstrators marched earlier in the day, holding up their right hands in reference to the five demands of the protesters, which include greater democracy for the city. Some held pictures of the stars of the Chinese flag arranged in the shape of a swastika or the word “Chinazi”.
Police had banned the march, citing the risk of potential violence. Activists said the ban, the latest of several police measures against such rallies, was a sign that freedom of speech and assembly were under attack by the government, backed by Beijing.
“If we fail this time, we will not have a second chance. Our civil society will be repressed by the Chinese Communist party. So we have to keep going,” said Gerald Chan, 24, a master’s student who was wearing reflective goggles and held a shield improvised from street signs.
For the past three months, Hong Kong has been gripped by its most serious political crisis in decades, triggered by a proposal to allow extradition to mainland China.
Hong Kong’s democratic struggles since 1997
1 July 1997: Hong Kong, previously a British colony, is returned to China under the framework of “one country, two systems”. The “Basic Law” constitution guarantees to protect, for the next 50 years, the democratic institutions that make Hong Kong distinct from Communist-ruled mainland China.
2003: Hong Kong’s leaders introduce legislation that would forbid acts of treason and subversion against the Chinese government. The bill resembles laws used to charge dissidents on the mainland. An estimated half a million people turn out to protest against the bill. As a result of the backlash, further action on the proposal is halted.
2007: The Basic Law stated that the ultimate aim was for Hong Kong’s voters to achieve a complete democracy, but China decides in 2007 that universal suffrage in elections for the chief executive cannot be implemented until 2017. Some lawmakers are chosen by business and trade groups, while others are elected by vote. In a bid to accelerate a decision on universal suffrage, five lawmakers resign. But this act is followed by the adoption of the Beijing-backed electoral changes, which expand the chief executive’s selection committee and add more seats for lawmakers elected by direct vote. The legislation divides Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp, as some support the reforms while others say they will only delay full democracy while reinforcing a structure that favors Beijing.
2014: The Chinese government introduces a bill allowing Hong Kong residents to vote for their leader in 2017, but with one major caveat: the candidates must be approved by Beijing. Pro-democracy lawmakers are incensed by the bill, which they call an example of “fake universal suffrage” and “fake democracy”. The move triggers a massive protest as crowds occupy some of Hong Kong’s most crowded districts for 70 days. In June 2015, Hong Kong legislators formally reject the bill, and electoral reform stalls. The current chief executive, Carrie Lam, widely seen as the Chinese Communist party’s favoured candidate, is hand-picked in 2017 by a 1,200-person committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites.
2019: Lam pushes amendments to extradition laws that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face charges. The proposed legislation triggers a huge protest, with organisers putting the turnout at 1 million, and a standoff that forces the legislature to postpone debate on the bills. After weeks of protest, often meeting with violent reprisals from the Hong Kong police, Lam announced that she would withdraw the bill.
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has said she will permanently withdraw the controversial bill but the demonstrations have expanded to take on new demands, including an independent investigation into the police and implementation of universal suffrage.
Confrontations between police and protesters have grown increasingly violent, with police deploying water cannon, teargas and rubber bullets as well as beating protesters with their batons. Demonstrators have responded by throwing petrol bombs and bricks as well as vandalising public transit stations.
“This is not the Hong Kong we know,” said Tim Cheng, 42, a father of two, who said the demand he most wanted to see met was the inquiry into police behaviour. “When I was young, my parents and teachers told me that if I was in trouble to contact the police. Now I can’t tell my kids that.”
Sunday’s march came after ugly scenes of brawls between anti-government and pro-Beijing demonstrators on Saturday, marking the 15th consecutive weekend of mass protests.
Earlier on Sunday, hundreds of pro-democracy protesters gathered outside the British consulate in Hong Kong, chanting “we will not surrender” as they called on the UK to come to the aid of the former British colony.
Demonstrators waved the union flag, sang God Save the Queen and chanted “Stand for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” as they sought to bring attention to their calls for democracy in the semi-autonomous territory, which was handed over to Chinese control in 1997.
China has called the handover agreement signed by the UK and China in 1997 – the joint declaration – a “historical document” with “no practical significance”.
Chinese officials have lashed out at the UK for signalling its support of Hong Kong. A UK Foreign Office spokeswoman in June said the document was a “legally binding treaty … that remains as valid today as it was when it was signed”.
Some Hong Kong demonstrators, looking for a way to leave the city, have been calling on the UK to extend the rights of British national overseas (BNO) passports to include the right to live and work in the UK. The passports, which replaced the British dependent territories citizens’ passports held by 3 million people in the lead-up to the 1997 handover, grant the right to visit the UK only for six months.
Last weekend, thousands marched on the US consulate to call on American lawmakers to pass legislation that could potentially sanction Hong Kong officials, in an effort to step up pressure internationally for their cause.
Beijing and pro-China figures in Hong Kong have previously accused foreign powers including the US and the UK of secretly funding and organising the rallies.
On Saturday, Joshua Wong, the democracy activist and former student leader of the 2014 umbrella movement in Hong Kong, called on US officials to include Hong Kong and a human rights clause in ongoing negotiations as the US and China try to resolve a long-running trade war.
“We hope … for bipartisan support,” Wong told Reuters, adding that he hoped to convince US legislators to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would implement an annual review of Hong Kong’s special status in terms of trade and investment from the US.