Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday to denounce Beijing’s plan to impose a draconian national security law, neutralizing the legislature and potentially setting up a brutal crackdown on all future dissent.
The police hit the protesters with water cannon and tear gas, while the protesters threw stones, blocked traffic, smashed street lights, and set some small fires. The most serious complaint of violence lodged against protesters involved a mob of umbrella-wielding demonstrators beating a lawyer who got into an argument with them.
The Hong Kong Free Press published a pictorial account of the protests on Sunday, illustrating both the size of the demonstrations and the forceful police response:
Coconuts called Sunday’s demonstrations “one of the largest in months” and said “clashes between protesters and police were some of the most intense since the COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] outbreak.”
Sunday was only the beginning of what observers expect to be increasingly intense demonstrations against China’s national security law and it looks like the Hong Kong police are determined to respond in a forceful manner that makes the demonstrations even more vigorous in response:
Initial plans for a 1pm march from Sogo department store were quickly thwarted when police fired tear gas at a crowd of protesters setting road blocks after the demonstration began. Protesters moved westwards in the direction of Wan Chai, chanting protest slogans including “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” and “Hong Kong independence is the only way out.”
Masked protesters also dismantled barricades and dug up bricks from the pavement, while some set fires and smashed traffic lights. Video shows protesters smashing the window of Comme des Garcons, a fashion brand protesters deem to be pro-police.
Dozens of rounds of tear gas were fired throughout the day. Police also deployed a water cannon truck for the first time in months.
RTHK reported many of the protesters “scattered after the initial round of tear gas was fired,” but others took to “smashing up traffic lights by Southorn Playground in Wanchai and setting up makeshift barricades on the streets.”
The traditional chants and slogans of the protest movement were shouted and displayed, including “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” along with a new one: “Heaven Eradicate the Chinese Communist Party.” In addition to the national security law Beijing plans to impose, demonstrators denounced a bill that would make it illegal to show disrespect to the Communist Chinese national anthem.
When a hundred protesters began marching down Wan Chai Road toward the Admiralty district, the police fired pepper balls from rifles at them. Many of the 180-plus arrests made on Sunday were for organizing or participating in unauthorized assemblies since coronavirus restrictions on gatherings of more than eight people remain in place – controversially extending through June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and a major date on the pro-democracy calendar.
The Hong Kong police stated on social media that they used the “minimum necessary force” to stop “the violent acts of rioters,” but some journalists reported getting hit by pepper spray and “boxed in by groups of riot police.” The police said four of their own media liaison officers were injured when protesters threw bricks and glass bottles at their forces, while another officer was hurt when a brick smashed through the window of his vehicle.
The most serious incident of violence attributed to demonstrators was an assault on a 41-year-old lawyer named Chan Tze-chin on Sunday afternoon.
According to a police report, Chan got into a dispute with a group of demonstrators blocking a road and was beaten by dozens of protesters using umbrellas, a common symbol of resistance in Hong Kong dating back to the previous mass demonstrations of the “Umbrella Movement” in 2014. Chan’s injuries included a slash on his head and a stab wound in the neck from the tip of an umbrella.
Hong Kong’s Law Society denounced the attack as “distressing and infuriating.”
“Civil disobedience is not a permit for breaking the law, violence is also not a permit for the attackers,” said Law Society President Melissa Pang.
Pang said protesters “must not use violence to silence people with different political views.”
“If this is the kind of freedom everyone is fighting for, then it is the sorrow of Hong Kong,” she said.
Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority said six people were undergoing treatment for illness or injury suffered at the protests, including a 51-year-old woman who was in critical condition as of Monday morning.
Police officials vowed to arrest the “callous criminals” responsible for vandalism and violence. Leung Chun-ying, a former chief executive of Hong Kong, established a crowdfunded cash reward account for information leading to the apprehension of protesters suspected of “illegal acts,” particularly the assault on Chan Tze-chin.
“This incident is how rioters respond to opposition against the implementation of national security law in Hong Kong by Western countries and politicians,” said Leung, repeating the Chinese Communist Party line that the protesters are all puppets of the United States, United Kingdom, and other foreign governments. The controversial national security law prominently includes harsh measures against “foreign interference” in Hong Kong.
Protesters told RTHK they were undaunted by the police response and threats of more intense crackdowns to come, saying it was their duty to fight for their values and freedoms.
“It’s important for us to stand up and show the world that we are not afraid of what’s happening. We will fight for what we believe, no matter what happens,” said one demonstrator.
Another expressed her determination in words that will sound familiar to American ears: “If my home [does not] have freedom, I will choose to die.”