Dozens of people, including a 12-year-old, have been arrested after a night of escalating violence in Hong Kong that saw police fire a warning shot near protesters and use water cannon for the first time.
Police said they arrested 29 men and seven women, aged 12 to 48, for offences including unlawful assembly, possession of offensive weapons and assaulting police officers.
Sunday’s protests saw some of the fiercest clashes yet between police and demonstrators since violence escalated in mid-June over a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong people to be sent to mainland China for trial.
Police fired water cannon and volleys of tear gas in running battles with brick-throwing protesters. Six officers drew their pistols and one officer fired a warning shot into the air, police said in a statement.
Early on Monday morning, the Hong Kong government said it “severely condemns” the protesters. “The escalating illegal and violent acts of radical protesters are not only outrageous, they also push Hong Kong to the verge of a very dangerous situation.” It said police will “strictly follow up” on those acts.
“Police will take relentless enforcement action to bring the persons involved to justice,” it said.
Hundreds of thousands of people had braved rain on Sunday to stage a peaceful, police-sanctioned march in Tsuen Wan, a part of the city noted for its links with triad gangsters, after clashes on Saturday when police fired teargas, rubber bullets, pepper balls and sponge rounds at protesters.
By late afternoon on Sunday, about 100 riot police officers had formed into lines on two streets and protesters began to build makeshift barricades with plastic traffic barriers and bamboo rods in a standoff between the two sides. Just after 6pm local time police fired several rounds of teargas.
The crowd largely stayed put behind the barricades in the midst of choking smoke and some threw gas canisters back at the police. Protesters also threw bricks and Molotov cocktails at the police, with flames seen on the road between the two sides.
Minutes later, police launched another volley of teargas and charged at the protesters as the crowd dispersed. For the first time, police also used two anti-riot vehicles equipped with water cannons to chase away protesters. Several officers drew their guns on protesters and one fired a warning shot.
The scenes of worsening unrest provoked anger in China, where the microblog of the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily newspaper condemned protesters who removed a national flag at the rally before the march and trampled on it. “Such provocation challenges the national dignity and hurt the feelings of 1.4 billion Chinese. … It should pay a cost.”
The Hong Kong government said the act challenged the national authority and “allegedly violates” the National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance.
Some protesters said they were resorting to violence because the government had not responded to their peaceful demonstrations.
“The escalation you’re seeing now is just a product of our government’s indifference toward the people of Hong Kong,” said Rory Wong, who was at the showdown after the march.
After almost three months of continuous protests, demonstrators remained determined in their fight for political rights. They swore to continue their struggle as long as the government refused to heed their political demands.
The wave of protests, which started in early June to oppose an extradition bill under which individuals could be sent to mainland China for trial, has morphed into a broader anti-government, pro-democracy movement.
Demonstrators have five demands: the complete withdrawal of the now-suspended extradition bill; the setting up of an independent body to investigate police violence; a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots”; an amnesty for those arrested; and a resumption of political reform to allow the free election of Hong Kong’s leader and legislature.
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, said last week that she would establish platforms for dialogue although protesters dismissed her offer and said she needed to respond to their demands.