Police, protesters clash during huge HK pro-democracy rally

Police detain a protestor during New Year’s Day march in Hong Kong. (AP pic)

HONG KONG: Tens of thousands of pro-democracy marchers thronged the streets of Hong Kong for a massive rally on New Year’s Day, looking to carry the momentum of their movement into 2020 as police and hardcore demonstrators faced off again.

Hong Kong has been battered by nearly seven months of often-violent unrest, with frequent clashes between the police and hardcore protesters as the city battles its biggest political crisis in decades.

Despite a peaceful start on Wednesday, violence erupted near the march as it snaked through the Wan Chai district on the financial hub’s main island. Riot police used pepper spray and tear gas, while hardcore protesters lobbed Molotov cocktails.

The Civil Human Rights Front, the umbrella group which organised the march, had permission for the march from city authorities, but they were ordered to end it soon after the clashes began.

“The police have … asked us to dismiss the rally,” the organisers told marchers using megaphones.

“Please calmly and slowly leave the scene right now.”

In now-familiar scenes, riot police were seen taking positions at several locations, including the Wan Chai subway station.

Black-clad, masked protesters also gathered to set up makeshift barricades, while some businesses were vandalised in the afternoon.

The unrest in Hong Kong was sparked by a proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China, bringing millions out on to the streets in June last year.

It has since morphed into a larger revolt against what many fear is Beijing’s tightening control.

Despite the continued unrest, China and the Hong Kong administration have refused to cede to the protesters’ demands, which include fully free elections in the city, an inquiry into alleged police misconduct, and amnesty for the nearly 6,500 people arrested during the movement — nearly a third of them under the age of 20.

“It is sad that our demands from 2019 need to be carried forward to 2020,” the CHRF’s Jimmy Sham said at the start of the rally.

Activists have accused the police of brutality and rights violations, while city authorities — and the central government in Beijing — have accused pro-democracy protesters of rioting.

China has also alleged that the unrest has been fanned by foreign powers, and has bristled at criticism from rights groups and governments of the way the protests have been handled so far.

Hopeless situation

Hong Kong saw in the new year with an evening of peaceful protests that descended into tear gas-choked clashes between hardcore demonstrators and the police overnight.

Thousands of people linked arms to form human chains that stretched for miles along busy shopping streets and neighbourhoods on New Year’s Eve.

Later, protesters set fire to barricades in some parts of the city as the police launched 2020’s first volleys of tear gas and used water cannon to disperse the crowds.

The protest movement has become quieter since the city’s pro-democracy camp scored a landslide victory in a municipal-level vote in November — seen as a referendum on the Beijing-backed government — and violent clashes at some of the city’s university campuses.

But protesters have vowed to continue their fight for greater freedoms.

“Hong Kong people have been pushed to a hopeless situation. That’s why today we have to come out,” a masked protester said in a speech at the rally on Wednesday.

The unrest that began in June last year is the biggest crisis the former British colony has faced since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.

Under the terms of that handover, Hong Kong enjoys unique freedoms unseen on the mainland, but fears have increased in recent years that they are being chipped away as Beijing exerts more control over the territory.