By Clare Jim and Greg Torode
Thousands of protesters descended on China’s representative office in Hong Kong on Sunday, as anger over an extradition bill morphs into a fresh front against what many see as a broader erosion of freedoms by the city’s political masters in Beijing.
Millions have rallied over the past two months in an unprecedented show of force against Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, triggering the worst social turmoil to rock the former British colony since it returned to Chinese rule 22 years ago.
Activists, many clad in black and wearing masks, defied police orders and marched beyond the official finish point of a rally that took place earlier in the day to make their way toward Beijing’s Liaison Office.
“We are a bit worried about seeing no police here. Is it a trap? We won’t try to occupy. Just surround. We will decide later how long to stay,” said a young activist who was among the first to arrive and asked not to be identified.
Some protesters pelted eggs at the walls of the Liaison Office, as others blocked key roads in scenes reminiscent of democracy protests in 2014 that paralysed parts of the city.
Sunday’s protest, which had proceeded peacefully along the official route, is the latest in a wave of unrest that has plunged the Asian financial hub into political crisis.
Some held up banners that said, “LIAR” and “No excuse Carrie Lame”. A poster plastered on a lamppost called for an “Investigation on police brutality”.
Many ignored the official end point of the rally as the demonstrations show no sign of let-up, posing the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012.
“The police are terribly worried, I understand, about possible scuffles, clashes … violence around the government and legislative complexes and the police headquarters,” said pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo.
Authorities used blue and white water-filled barriers to barricade government and police headquarters, while global bank HSBC, in a rare move, pulled down large metal barriers on the street level of its gleaming skyscraper building.
While most of the rallies have passed off peacefully, some have erupted into violence late at night when more radical protesters have clashed with police.
The city’s police force has come under scrutiny after officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas last month to disperse demonstrators in some of the worst violence to roil Hong Kong in decades.
The police are struggling to cope amid haphazard decision-making, worsening morale and anger among rank-and-file officers that they are taking the public heat for government unpopularity, serving and retired officers, politicians and security analysts told Reuters.
The latest protest comes a day after tens of thousands gathered to voice support for the police, whom some have accused of using excessive force against activists, and demand an end to the violence.
Sunday’s march focused on calls for the full withdrawal of the extradition bill, which would allow people to be extradited to mainland China for trial, and an independent investigation into complaints of police brutality.
Other demands include charges against protesters to be dropped and universal suffrage.
“I came back to Hong Kong this summer because of the protests,” said Mandy Ko, 27, who is originally from Hong Kong and now lives in Australia.
“My spirit is still with Hong Kong people.”
Last weekend, two initially peaceful protests degenerated into running skirmishes between baton-wielding police and activists, resulting in scores of injuries and more than 40 arrests.
Those fights followed larger outbreaks of violence in central Hong Kong last month, when police forced back activists with tear gas, rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds.
Lam has apologised for the turmoil the extradition bill has caused and declared it “dead”. Opponents of the bill, which they fear could be used to silence dissent, say nothing short of its withdrawal will do.
Under the terms of the handover from Britain in 1997, Hong Kong was allowed to retain extensive freedoms under a “one country, two systems” formula, including an independent judiciary and the right to protest.
But for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march towards mainland control.
The protests have at times paralysed parts of the financial district, shut government offices and disrupted business operations across the city. Officials have also warned about the impact of the unrest on the economy.
A commentary published in the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper on Sunday said: “If violence continues, it will inevitably deal a greater blow to Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”
China has condemned the violent protests as an “undisguised challenge” to the one country, two systems formula.
Police late on Friday seized explosives and weapons in an industrial building in the New Territories district of Tsuen Wan. Three people were arrested. Police described the seizure as the largest of its kind in Hong Kong.
They said it was unclear whether the explosives were related to the protest.