(Bloomberg) — Hong Kong began 2020 with a familiar sight: Tear gas, fires, vandalism and roadblocks in busy downtown areas as protesters vowed to maintain their fight for more democracy and less Chinese control.
Riot police battled demonstrators into the night after large crowds of mostly peaceful demonstrators flooded streets from Causeway Bay to Central. Tensions escalated after police abruptly ended the rally following clashes outside of a branch of HSBC Holdings Plc, which had recently become a target of protesters.
By Thursday morning, the streets were largely back to normal although authorities warned that some downtown traffic lights weren’t working properly and some ATMs were damaged. Organizers said more than a million people took part, while police said 60,000 showed up at the lawn area of Victoria Park where the march began — a number that demonstrators disputed. At least 400 people were arrested, police said, adding that officers ordered the rally to disperse due to damage at a bank branch and the use of petrol bombs.
“Instead of celebrating New Year’s Day like the rest of the world, we are out here in the streets fighting for our government to answer our demands,” said Sarah, 28, as a crowd of black-clad protesters sang the anti-government anthem “Glory to Hong Kong.”
“We will keep coming out month after month, year after year because this isn’t just about us — it’s about our children,” she said. “This is our home and we are not giving up. We have to stand up against China and against dictatorship.”
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The chaotic images mirrored those that have occurred dozens of times since the unrest broke out in June after the Beijing-backed local administration proposed a bill that would allow extraditions to China for the first time. While Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has since withdrawn the legislation, she has refused to meet additional demands including an independent inquiry into police violence and direct leadership elections.
The violence has pushed Hong Kong’s economy into recession and forced the cancellation of numerous events, including an annual fireworks display on New Year’s Eve. Lam said in a year-end video message that restoring social “order and harmony” should be the city’s resolution for 2020, while President Xi Jinping defended China’s system for running Hong Kong in an unusually high-profile acknowledgment of its political turmoil.
“Without a harmonious and stable environment, how can people live in peace and enjoy their work?” Xi asked in a New Year’s Eve address, wearing a suit and seated behind a desk. “I sincerely wish Hong Kong well. Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability is the wish of Hong Kong compatriots and the expectation of our motherland.”
On the city’s streets, protesters expressed frustration with the approach from China’s leaders while pledging to continue the fight. They also attacked HSBC, which closed an account linked to the protests in November, lighting a fire at one branch and vandalizing iconic lion statues outside of its Hong Kong headquarters.
Police last month arrested four people for suspected money laundering linked to the pro-democracy protests and froze HK$70 million ($9 million) in funds related to the Spark Alliance, a group that helps protesters pay legal fees. HSBC defended its decision to close the account, saying the move was unrelated to the December arrests and followed a “direct instruction” from the customer.
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In a statement late Wednesday, HSBC condemned the acts of vandalism and called them “unjustified.”
“We believe the rule of law is essential to Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center and we look forward to the speedy resolution of the issues,” it said.
HSBC’s move to close the account and the arrests linked to Spark Alliance motivated more people to hit the streets on Wednesday, said a 34-year-old protester who gave his name as Tong.
“HSBC and other companies just want business in China but the whole world is watching and we’re going to hold them accountable,” he said. “If we keep united and keep hurting the economy and international opinion of Hong Kong, the government will eventually have to listen to us. It will pressure them to give in to us, instead of just listening to the Chinese government.”
The protest began as a largely peaceful affair featuring families with children and the elderly, similar to others convened by the Civil Human Rights Front. The group has organized some of the largest protests over the last seven months by seeking police permission and strictly adhering to the law.
The government even lauded the protesters before police suddenly pulled the plug, saying in a statement that the majority of people behaved “in a lawful, peaceful and rational manner.” The government “has all along respected people’s rights and freedoms to participate in peaceful processions and assemblies and express views rationally, as these are the important core values cherished by Hong Kong people,” it said.
But shortly after some demonstrators sought to vandalize a branch of HSBC in Wan Chai, police ordered protest organizers to end the rally. Tens of thousands of people appeared to be on the streets at the time, leading to general confusion among the masses. Protest organizers condemned the decision.
Ian Ching, 34, continued to walk toward Central even after the march was called off, saying he didn’t agree with the police that the rally had turned violent.
“I might be walking a bit faster, but I still want to walk through the whole protest route just to show my perseverance with all the Hong Kong people here because we need to defend this place,” he said. “It’s not curfew after all — that’s why I can walk as a person.”
Maria Li, 50, had to work on Wednesday and only arrived at the protest at 5:30 p.m. to find that it had been called off.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with the police — we got permission to come and march today,” said Li, who dressed in black.
“It’s been seven months and still the government isn’t listening to us,” she added. “Carrie Lam just does whatever she wants. That’s why we need to keep coming out and showing protesters they are not alone.”
(Updates with details on participants, arrests in third paragraph)
–With assistance from Fion Li.
To contact the reporters on this story: Shelly Banjo in Hong Kong at email@example.com;Aaron Mc Nicholas in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org;Vinicy Chan in Hong Kong at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org, Karen Leigh
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