(Bloomberg) — Hong Kong riot police deployed tear gas and pepper spray to disperse thousands of protesters in a suburb near the mainland Chinese border, after a day of pitched battles near the site of mob attacks on demonstrators earlier this week.
Police moved to clear the area late Saturday after some of the demonstrators packed into the narrow streets hurled stones and other objects at officers and vandalized a law enforcement van with personnel still inside. By 9 p.m. local time, most of the protesters had departed, save for a few hundred die-hard activists who remained locked in a standoff with police outside a train station.
About 288,000 people took part in the rally, organizer Max Chung told reporters, although the police had not yet provided an estimate.
The protesters defied police opposition to the gathering and converged on the northern district of Yuen Long for a march to condemn shocking attacks on activists and train passengers by groups of stick-wielding men. The violence — and anger over the police’s failure to stop it — caused demonstrators to focus their anger on a village where the attackers where the mob was believed to have originated and a nearby police station.
The former British colony is entering its eighth straight week of unrest sparked by now-suspended legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. The movement has swelled into a wider anti-government campaign that includes demands for Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s resignation and an inquiry into excessive use of force against protesters.
Saturday’s demonstration came a day after a sit-in at Hong Kong’s international airport, the first of three days of demonstrations against the city’s China-backed government. Organizers said 15,000 people took part in the airport protest, while police put the number at 4,000 at its peak.
“The violence in Yuen Long last week shocked Hong Kong and persuaded many people into supporting and joining the protest movement,” opposition lawmaker Raymond Chan said in Yuen Long. “Many people have said they were neutral, but after last week so many have come out to express their discontent with the government and the police force. Even though it’s a little bit dangerous, you see so many people have come out — the young and the old.”
On Friday, swarms of people wearing the black shirts favored by protesters sat on the ground of Terminal 1’s arrivals hall, holding signs and chanting “Free Hong Kong! Free Hong Kong!” and other slogans as crowds watched. Cathay Pacific Airlines Ltd.’s flight attendants’ union encouraged aviation industry staff to participate and said it would set up a specific area for its members.
The protest at Asia’s busiest international airport underscores the economic risk of continued unrest, with local retailers bracing for a single-to-double-digit drop sales as demonstrations keep tourists out of shops. In recent weeks, the protests have spilled over from government districts to malls and railway stations, impacting more ordinary residents.
The civil actions have continued despite government apologies and promises not to pass the extradition bill.
“The protest is a way to show that Hong Kong people have had enough of this and hope the government will stop the violence,” said Marco Chan, a 23-year-old legal analyst. “For those of my friends who decide to go, they think that what happened in Yuen Long last week is too outrageous for them not to step up and show how angry they are.”
Authorities later arrested a dozen men, including at least nine with suspected links to the city’s notorious triad gangs who have long had a large presence in the area. Police Commissioner Stephen Lo has defended officers’ conduct in Yuen Long, saying those who had arrived on scene were outnumbered and not properly equipped to respond. At least 45 people were injured in the attacks.
A 56-year-old retired civil servant, who would only give his name as R. Ng, was at Saturday’s protest with his wife and friends, and said he’s worried about potential violence in Yuen Long, despite attending many protests. “This is my first time taking an umbrella, because I need to protect myself,” he said.
The outbursts of violence, including clashes between police and protesters near China’s liaison office in the city on Sunday, have put pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping to find a solution. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo urged China in a Bloomberg Television interview Thursday to “do the right thing” in Hong Kong and called on all parties to avoid violence. China’s foreign ministry had earlier urged the U.S. to remove its “black hand” from the city.
On Sunday, protesters also plan to march from centrally located Chater Garden on Hong Kong Island toward the western neighborhood of Sheung Wan. That will bring them close to China’s local government office, where vandalism during a rally on Sunday prompted warnings from Beijing.
(Updates with protest clearance in first paragraph, crowd estimate in third.)
–With assistance from Justin Chin.
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