Policemen fire tear gas shells toward protesters at a shopping district of Hong Kong, Aug. 31, 2019.
Policemen fire tear gas shells toward protesters at a shopping district of Hong Kong, Aug. 31, 2019.

HONG KONG - Pro-democracy protesters clashed with police in Hong Kong Saturday as they took to the streets for the 13th straight weekend in defiance of a government ban on demonstrations.
 
Police fired tear gas and used a water cannon to unleash blue-dyed water at the protesters in front of the city's parliament to make it easier to identify them. Demonstrators, many clad in black, hurled fire bombs and rocks at police as they took cover behind umbrellas.

Thick black smoke swirled about after protesters set a large fire at a barricade on a major thoroughfare near Hong Kong police headquarters.

The blaze was extinguished as police pushed demonstrators to the Causeway Bay shopping district by firing rounds of tear gas and sporadically shooting rubber bullets.

Numerous arrests were made after sunset as protesters and police confronted each other across the special administrative region.

Activists and protesters prepared for a tense and long Saturday, a day after Hong Kong police rounded up more than two dozen democracy activists and banned a proposed march, as officials sought to crush an increasingly agitated anti-government movement.

Lawmakers, activists and prominent student leaders Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow were charged Friday with violating various public disorder laws, a move that critics called a clear attempt to discourage supporters and end the nearly three-month-long campaign. Both were charged in connection with the June 21 siege of police headquarters, when protesters surrounded and vandalized the building for hours.

Pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow leave the Eastern Court after being released on bail in Hong Kong, Aug. 30, 2019.

Police also charged three lawmakers who favor democracy, Au Nok-hin, Cheng Chung-tai and Jeremy Tam Man-ho.

In addition, Andy Chan Ho-tin, an outspoken leader of the city’s small independence movement, announced through Facebook that he had been detained at the Hong Kong Airport Thursday. Reports said he was stopped before boarding a flight and charged with rioting and assaulting a police officer.

Elsewhere, other activists were charged in connection with the July 1 decision to break into the legislature.

People take part in the 'Prayer walk for Sinners' rally in Hong Kong, Aug. 31, 2019. Thousands of pro-democracy protesters defied a police ban on rallying, a day after several leading activists were arrested.

Campaign for rights

An effort to stop a contentious bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China exploded this spring into a massive campaign for democratic rights. 

Pro-democracy supporters said the government’s decision to round up activists will inflame residents who are demanding democratic elections and a stop to sometimes brutal policing. 

“The mass arrests will only anger the public as many people are sympathetic towards the young activists and have found their efforts over the past few months a demonstration of their love of Hong Kong,” pro-democracy lawmaker James To told the South China Morning Post. The arrests “have made reconciliation difficult.”

12 weeks of protests

Residents have marched for 12 straight weekends, initially to demand that the government withdraw the detested extradition bill, and more recently, to seek democratic voting rights, a goal that has been repeatedly thwarted in the Chinese territory.

Anti-extradition bill protesters are surrounded by tear gas during clashes with police in Tsuen Wan in Hong Kong, Aug. 25, 2019.

Frustration over the government’s decision to ignore the mass marches prodded younger participants to stage increasingly violent clashes with police. Their refusal to disperse, and to use Molotov cocktails, bricks and poles to fight officers, led officials to deny permission to marches and rallies, saying organizers could not guarantee that the events would be peaceful.

With Saturday’s scheduled protest banned, residents began to throng a busy shopping district and a playground. By midafternoon, police ordered participants to leave, saying they were engaged in an unauthorized assembly. Protesters discussed marching without permission to the Chinese government’s liaison office on Hong Kong Island, the home of Beijing’s representatives in Hong Kong and the site of violent showdowns with police during the past weeks.

Despite the months of mass strikes, officials in Hong Kong and Beijing have refused to concede to any of the protesters’ demands, which include an investigation into tactics used by the police.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam listens to reporters' questions during a press conference in Hong Kong, Aug. 27, 2019.

Reuters and The New York Times reported that Beijing officials ordered Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, to rebuff the protesters’ demands and make no concessions. Instead, Lam has hinted that the government could unleash emergency powers that could include imposing curfews and shutting down the internet.

Such a move would likely draw fire from the city’s foreign business sector.

Organizers of Saturday’s banned march, Civil Human Rights Front, canceled the event after the group’s bid to overturn the ban failed. The group has staged three of the biggest mass gatherings in the city’s history, all since June, to stop the extradition law. 

That has made a target of the group’s convener, Jimmy Shan. He was attacked Thursday by two men using bats and knives, but was not seriously injured, according to a member of the democracy camp. The organizer of another banned march in Yuen Long last month also was attacked.

“We will continue to stand with Hong Kongers and provide legal support for arrested persons,” the Front posted on its Facebook page. “We hereby apologize again to all who are hoping to take to the streets tomorrow without risking legal consequences.”

High school students plan to strike Monday. But a coalition of groups, including a major trade union, was denied rally permits for that same day. Police officials said organizers could not guarantee the public’s safety.