HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired tear gas on Saturday night in confrontations with black-clad activists in the city’s Kowloon area, as the Chinese-controlled territory was again rocked by anti-government protests.
Police kept out of sight during an afternoon that saw tens of thousands of protesters march through what is ordinarily a busy shopping district, but charged onto the streets after 9 p.m. (1300 GMT), with hundreds of officers in riot gear pushing crowds back.
As more than 1,000 protesters stood their ground on Nathan Road, a major thoroughfare, police warned against what they called an illegal assembly and urged them to leave immediately or force would be used.
Protests against a proposed bill allowing people to be extradited to stand trial in mainland China have grown increasingly violent since June, with police accused of excessive force and failing to protect protesters from suspected gang attacks.
Police said they used tear gas to disperse the crowd after protesters set fires outside the Tsim Sha Tsui police station and “damaged multiple vehicles inside the station”.
Earlier in the day, protesters marched through the crowded Mong Kok district, with many then dispersing to different parts of the Kowloon peninsula, where they set up barriers across busy streets to block traffic.
Protesters, covering their faces with masks or bandanas and wearing helmets and goggles, have adopted increasingly sophisticated tactics. On Saturday, many carried hiking sticks and some held homemade shields.
“We don’t stay in the same place. We are using hit-and-run tactics,” said a construction worker who was among protesters in the Mong Kok area of Kowloon and called himself “Water”.
“If the police are too strong, we will leave. They are a rock, so we must be like water,” he added, echoing a refrain of Hong Kong martial arts legend Bruce Lee that has been taken up by activists.
Organizers said 120,000 people joined the rally. Police said 42,000 people had joined the march at its peak.
In the Nathan Road area, normally packed with shoppers on a Saturday, shutters were down on most street-facing shops, including 7-11 convenience stores, jewelry chain Chow Tai Fook and watch brands Rolex and Tudor.
The main entrance to the landmark Peninsula Hotel was closed.
Many of Saturday’s demonstrators wore yellow or white hard hats, and the crowds chanted “age of revolution!” and “Hong Kongers, add oil!” – a popular exhortation in Cantonese.
Earlier, hundreds of marchers held posters with an illustration of protesters in hard hats tending to a young child, with the words “protect the future”.
The crowd was mostly young, but also included families and older people. Some young couples held hands.
Across the harbor, in Victoria Park on Hong Kong island, thousands of people, mostly wearing white, held a separate afternoon rally in support of the police.
In a carnival-like atmosphere, many waved Hong Kong and Chinese flags and the crowd shouted slogans in support of the police.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho was greeted with strong applause.
“We are the real Hong Kong people who are not the same as those black-shirted thugs. We don’t need a so-called ‘HK revolution’, we only need to do our best, which is enough,” he told the crowd.
Sylvia Lam, 61, who described herself as a housewife, said she had turned up at the pro-police rally to oppose violence.
“I feel extremely uncomfortable when every time I watch TV, the scenes are so radical,” she said. “Young people should stop and think, don’t become someone’s political tools, be rational please.”
The organizer estimated the size of the crowd at the pro-police event as 90,000, while the police said the crowd numbered 26,000 at its peak.
MORE PROTESTS PLANNED
Under Chinese rule, Hong Kong has been allowed to retain extensive freedoms, such as an independent judiciary, but many residents see the extradition bill as the latest step in a relentless march toward mainland control.
The protests against it have become the most serious political crisis in Hong Kong since it returned to China 22 years ago after being governed by Britain.
They also pose the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he took office in 2012 and come as Xi grapples with an escalating trade war with the United States and a slowing economy in a politically sensitive year. On Oct. 1, China will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.
Further anti-government protests were scheduled in Hong Kong for Sunday, with activists calling for a mass strike on Monday.
Months of demonstrations are taking a growing toll on the city’s economy, as local shoppers and tourists avoid parts of one of the world’s most famous shopping destinations.
On Friday evening, in central Hong Kong, thousands of civil servants defied a warning from authorities to remain politically neutral and joined anti-government protests for the first time since they started two months ago.
In Washington on Friday, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers called on the Trump administration to halt future sales of munitions and crowd-control equipment to Hong Kong’s police force, which has been accused of using excessive force against protesters.
Reporting by Anne Marie Roantree, Sumeet Chatterjee, Vimvam Tong, Donny Kwok, Twinnie Siu, Kevin Liu, Felix Tam, Marius Zaharia, Joyce Zhou, Simon Gardner and James Pomfret; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Michael Perry, Alex Richardson and Frances Kerry