HONG KONG (AP) — A massive pro-democracy rally Saturday in downtown Hong Kong ended early after violence broke out, with police firing tear gas and a water cannon after protesters threw bricks and Molotov cocktails at government buildings.
Police said in a statement that “radical protesters” lobbed gasoline bombs and damaged property outside the government offices, and aimed laser beams at a helicopter, posing “a serious threat to the safety of everyone” in the area.
The violence was a familiar scene that has been repeated since protests for democratic reforms started in early June in the semiautonomous Chinese territory. It also came three days before a major march is planned on the day China celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party taking power, sparking fears of bloody clashes that could embarrass Beijing.
Organizers said 200,000-300,000 people attended Saturday’s rally, while police did not immediately give a turnout figure. The rally was called to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, in which protesters occupied key thoroughfares in the downtown area for 79 days beginning Sept. 28 to demand direct elections for the city’s leaders but failed to win any government concessions.
More than 1,000 protesters streamed onto a main road, with some targeting government buildings that were barricaded. Police initially used a hose to fire pepper spray after some demonstrators threw bricks. Police later used a water cannon truck to fire a blue liquid, used to identify protesters, and fired tear gas after protesters lobbed gasoline bombs through the barriers.
Wails of anger could be heard from people leaving the rally when they saw the water cannon. “Damn government,” one woman yelled as she hastily left with her daughter.
Many protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves and retreated but returned after that. Scores of riot police poured onto the road and protesters later fled. Police continued to patrol the streets and searched people leaving the area.
“We think we will lose because their force is so strong,” said one demonstrator, 22-year-old Sang Chan. “But if we don’t do anything now, we’ll have no other chance.”
A 32-year-old protester who would give only his surname, Chau, said the demonstrators hope to wear down the government. “It’s like a marathon to see who gets tired first,” he said.
Protesters unfurled a large banner that read “We are back” on a footbridge to the government office. A staircase leading to the bridge was turned into a veritable gallery of protest art, with posters stuck on every available surface of the walkway. One read “Persevere until final victory.”
Some protesters trampled on pictures of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam that were glued to the floor. At one of the gates to Lam’s office, the Chinese word for “hell” and an arrow pointing to the building were spray-painted on the sidewalk.
In response to the rally, a government spokesman said universal suffrage is enshrined in Hong Kong’s constitution but called for peaceful dialogue. The spokesman said in a statement that the government would “assess the situation carefully and take forward constitutional development” in accordance with the law.
Activist Joshua Wong, who played a key role as a youth leader in the 2014 protests, told the rally that the people “are back with even stronger determination” to win the battle for more rights.
Earlier Saturday, Wong, 22, announced plans to contest district council elections in November.
Wong, who has been arrested and jailed repeatedly, said he is aware he could be disqualified but warned it would just generate more support for the protest movement. Members of the Demosisto party that he co-founded in 2016 have in the past been disqualified from serving and running for office because they advocated self-determination.
Wong is out on bail after he was rearrested with several other people last month and charged with organizing an illegal rally. It didn’t stop him from going to the U.S., Germany and Taiwan to drum up support for the current protest movement, which started over an extradition bill but has since snowballed into an anti-China campaign.
The now-shelved bill, which would have sent some criminal suspects for trial in mainland China, is seen as a jarring example of China’s intrusion into the city’s autonomy.
Protesters are planning global “anti-totalitarianism” rallies on Sunday in Hong Kong and over 60 other cities worldwide to denounce what they called “Chinese tyranny.”
But the biggest worry for the government is on Tuesday, when protesters are planning a major march as China’s ruling Communist Party marks its 70th year in power with grand festivities in Beijing. Pro-Beijing groups have also vowed to come out.
Police have banned the march, but in the past that has not stopped protesters from showing up anyway. Hong Kong’s government has toned down National Day celebrations, canceling an annual fireworks display and moving a reception indoors.
Associated Press journalists John Leicester and Nadia Lam contributed to this report.