In Defiance Of Ban, Hong Kong Protesters Return To Streets And Clash With Police


A protester uses a shield to cover himself as he faces police in Hong Kong on Saturday.
Jae C. Hong, AP

A protester uses a shield to cover himself as he faces police in Hong Kong on Saturday.

Defying a government ban, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators returned to the streets of Hong Kong on Saturday and clashed with police in one of the most dramatic and violent days of unrest since June when the protests began.

Perhaps the most striking image from Saturday's protests has been that of a large fire, blazing across a street in a major shopping district. Protesters created a wall of barricades and set it ablaze.

Earlier on Saturday, police fired tear gas and used water cannons in their attempts to disperse protesters throwing objects and gasoline bombs at the main government headquarters. Protesters also reportedly gathered near the Hong Kong police headquarters.

Some of the protesters called their demonstration early on Saturday a "religious rally" — what NPR correspondent Emily Feng described as an attempt to evade the police restrictions around protests (Police still considered the event an illegal gathering.).

"Throughout the afternoon, protesters alternated between chanting for democratic elections and also singing religious songs," Feng told NPR's Weekend Edition. They said they were praying for peace — and also for "sinners."

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Saturday's demonstrations came on the fifth anniversary of Beijing's decision to continue vetting all candidates for Hong Kong's chief executive position. That decision sparked the 2014 "Umbrella Revolution," which consisted of months of mass pro-democracy protests but ultimately failed to secure direct elections for Hong Kong.

The past three months of protests in Hong Kong were triggered by legislation that would have allowed Hong Kong's government to extradite people to China for certain crimes — a proposal that critics feared could be used to target outspoken critics of China.

Though Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, responded to protests by suspending the bill in mid-June, protesters continued to demonstrate because the bill has yet to be formally withdrawn. The activists have since expanded their list of demands to include calls for Lam's resignation, direct elections, an inquiry into police tactics and the unconditional release of all arrested protesters.

Lam has refused or ignored the demands. On Tuesday, Lam said the government was looking into all "legal means to stop violence and chaos" in Hong Kong. This week, China sent additional troops to Hong Kong.

In a news conference Friday, Hong Kong police commander Kwok Pak Chung said unauthorized demonstrators could face jail sentences of up to five years.

Demonstrators showed out despite that warning — because, as NPR's Feng reported, "they're furious at what they see as police brutality, and they're further galvanized by a wave of arrests of prominent activists and politicians."

On Thursday and Friday, police arrested three prominent activists — most notably, 22-year-old Joshua Wong, who leads the youth activist group Demosisto. Wong was released on bail and attended Saturday's protests, NPR's Feng reported. Three pro-democracy lawmakers were also arrested on Friday, according multiple media reports.

Police in Hong Kong have made over 900 arrests associated with this summer's protests, but some see these targeted detentions as a shift in strategy. Man-kei Tam, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, called the latest arrests and the ban on Saturday's rally "scare tactics straight out of Beijing's playbook."

Though police have targeted high-profile activists and pro-democracy thinkers, the protest movement in Hong Kong remains a leaderless movement.

On Sunday, protesters plan to shut down transportation lines into the Hong Kong International Airport for the third time in three months. On Monday, a general strike is set to begin across universities and many other sectors.

"I think when the government go hard, we go hard," said Isaac Cheng, a vice chairman of Demosisto. "We ask the government, please respond to the five demands as soon as possible. Otherwise, the people may be using some more radical ways or more hard ways to respond to the response of the government."

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