HONG KONG – Hundreds of thousands of protesters thronged central Hong Kong once again on Sunday as a fresh bout of pro-democracy demonstrations got underway amid beefed-up security and a lingering sense of caution on the streets over concerns that violence could break out.
In what was the seventh consecutive week of anti-government protests in the special status Chinese territory, organizers from the Civil Human Rights Front said 430,000 people marched through the streets, calling for, among other things, an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality in previous demonstrations.
In anticipation of a large turnout, Hong Kong’s police deployed 3,000 officers, nearly one-tenth of its overall force, to districts around the demonstration areas.
Moreover, in an unusual move, police cut short the route of the march proposed by the Civil Human Rights Front, citing public security concerns. The group originally suggested a four-kilometer route going from the Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to the Court of Final Appeal in Central. It was cut to two kilometers, ending in Southorn Playground in Wan Chai.
As the crowd came to the end of the route, however, hordes of protesters disregarded those police restrictions splintered off in different directions.
Some headed to police headquarters, others to Central, the city’s main business district, and over 1,000 moved toward the Chinese government’s liaison office in Sai Wan.
The latter was perhaps the most notable as it was the first time in weeks of political turmoil in Hong Kong that the liaison office has been specifically targeted.
Shortly after 7 pm, some of the protesters at the compound began to attack the national emblem attached the building, while others hurled eggs or sprayed paint on the security cameras.
They also shone laser pens at personnel inside the office who, in turn, were filming the demonstrators outside.
Then, just over an hour later, the protesters held a vote on the scene and decided to retreat.
Tensions in different parts of Hong Kong Island are running high, as protesters and other citizens expecting that the police will take action at some point later Sunday.
Earlier, more than 200 two-meter-high water barricades were been erected outside important government buildings, including the government headquarters and the police headquarters.
In several districts, median barriers, metal trash bins and bus-stop poles, often used by protesters to create makeshift barricades against the police in the recent wave of anti-government protests, were removed from roadsides.
Some netizens expressed concerns over a step up in the scale of police operations.
The South China Morning Post reported Saturday that the Hong Kong police were looking for more than 700 protesters believed to be behind “violent confrontations” that have roiled the city over the past weeks.
Hong Kong is currently in the throes of a political crisis sparked by the government’s much-criticized extradition bill, which would have enabled fugitives extradited to China to stand trials in courts controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared on 9 July that the bill was “dead” but that has failed to placate people.
The protesters’ demands, which were initially focused on the extradition bill, have morphed into more catch-all pro-democracy demos urging universal suffrage, one of the pillars of the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
They have also asked that all charges against those arrested in demonstrations be released.
Meanwhile, pro-government voices can from time to time be heard in public gatherings, too. On Saturday, tens of thousands of people – mostly middle-aged or older – joined a “Safeguard Hong Kong” rally in Central, Hong Kong’s central business district, to show support for the Hong Kong authorities and police force.
Among the attendees were a former police commissioner, pro-Beijing lawmakers and former government officials.
Unlike the pro-democracy rallies, this protest received wide coverage in the heavily censored Chinese press.
A former British colony, Hong Kong passed to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 although retains a level of democracy and freedom from the mainland.
According to the handover deal between London and Beijing, this political system must be preserved until 2047, although many fear that China is looking to accelerate Hong Kong’s assimilation.