Police in Hong Kong have fired teargas and deployed water cannon against defiant protesters, as the anti-government movement – now almost in its eighth month – pushed into 2020.
Shortly after revellers counted down and shouted “Happy new year!” on Wednesday, police in the central district of Mong Kok shot teargas at protesters who set off fireworks and set fire to roadblocks.
Earlier, police deployed water cannon to disperse protesters while armoured vehicles cleared roadblocks. The crowd had gathered outside a metro station where people were leaving flowers to commemorate protesters rumoured to have died during a clash with police four months ago. The government denies the deaths.
Hundreds of thousands of people joined a march on New Year’s Day, which began in a mood of carnival, with some protesters in costumes and families with children and elderly people.
Marchers chanted slogans including: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our era.”
But the rally ended in clashes as riot police fired teargas rounds in Wan Chai district. Protesters had thrown objects at officers who had arrested several people for allegedly vandalising a bank.
Some had thrown molotov cocktails at the police and sheltered behind opened umbrellas, but many in the crowd were caught by surprise as the march was expected to be peaceful and most did not wear protective gear.
Police demanded that the protest organiser, the Civil Human Rights Front, immediately call off the demonstration, but large crowds continued to march and police declared they were taking part in an illegal assembly.
As night fell, police used water cannon on crowds in Wan Chai and the financial district of Central. Protesters laid bricks across the main thoroughfare in Central in an attempt to stop the police from advancing towards the area.
A police statement said protesters had blocked roads with barricades, dug up bricks from pavements and set fires to banks and cash machines.
The anti-government movement in Hong Kong, sparked by an extradition bill that would have allowed for individuals to be sent to China for trials, is showing no signs of abating. Protesters say they will not give up unless the government meets their demands, which include universal suffrage and an independent investigation into police brutality.
As of last week, 6,494 people had been arrested since the movement started in June, some as young as 12, according to the police.
Many in Hong Kong, including pro-democracy supporters, are weary of the frequent violent confrontations in the months-long movement and are seeking new directions in their attempt to press the government into conceding to their demands.
Some are urging fellow Hong Kongers on social media to use economic means to put pressure on the government instead, including joining trade unions so they could launch strikes and other collective actions more effectively.
“We want to show our determination to the world that we will not back down on our resistance against an authoritarian regime,” said Mary Chin, a former bank employee in her 40s.
The Civil Human Rights Front condemned the police’s abrupt revocation of its permission for the march, which it estimated was attended by a million people.
“The government has shown its unwillingness to listen to the voices of the mass and it has infringed on their right to assembly,” it said in a statement. “Hong Kongers shall not back down and peace shall not resume with the ongoing police brutality.”