Hong Kong reopens after weekend of clashes, protests

By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s businesses and metro stations reopened as usual on Monday after a chaotic Sunday when police fired water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who blocked roads and threw petrol bombs outside government headquarters.

On Sunday what began as a mostly peaceful protest earlier in the day spiraled into violence in some of the Chinese territory’s busiest shopping and tourist districts.

Thousands of anti-government protesters, many clad in black masks, caps and shades to obscure their identity, raced through the streets, engaging in cat-and-mouse tactics with police, setting street fires and blocking roads in the heart of Hong Kong where many key business districts are located.

The demonstrations are the latest in nearly four months of sometimes violent protests. Protesters are furious over what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in Hong Kong’s affairs despite promises by Beijing to grant the city wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms denied in mainland China.

Dozens of university students rallied peacefully on Monday afternoon urging authorities to listen to public demands. Dressed in black, some of them donning face masks, students sang “Glory to Hong Kong” a song that has become a rallying cry for more democratic freedoms in the semi-autonomous Chinese hub.

At Baptist University hundreds of students also marched to demand the university’s management offer support to a student reporter arrested on Sunday.

The initial trigger for the protests was a contentious extradition bill, now withdrawn, that would have allowed people to be sent from Hong Kong to mainland China for trial.

The protests have since broadened into other demands including universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into allegations of excessive force by the police.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland – including a much-cherished independent legal system.

89 ARRESTS IN WEEKEND VIOLENCE

Kung Lui, a third-year university student majoring in sociology, said the protests would continue until all five demands were met. “The protests have revealed lots of social problems and proved that democracy and freedom are the core values of Hong Kong people.”

Police on Monday said 89 people were arrested over the weekend after “radical protesters” attacked two police officers on Sunday evening, hurling petrol bombs, bricks, and threatening the safety of the officers.

Nearly 1,500 people have been arrested since the protests started in June.

Authorities moved quickly to douse the fires and police fired volleys of tear gas to disperse them, including in the bustling shopping and tourist district of Causeway Bay.

At least 18 people were injured, three of them seriously, during Sunday’s violence, according to the Hospital Authority.

The protests have weighed on the city’s economy as it faces its first recession in a decade, with tourist arrivals plunging 40 percent in August amid some disruptions at the city’s international airport.

By Sunday evening, the running battles between anti-government protesters and police had evolved into street brawls between rival groups in the districts of Fortress Hill and North Point further east on Hong Kong island. There, men in white T-shirts – believed to be pro-Beijing supporters and some wielding hammers, rods and knives – clashed with anti-government activists.

On a street close to North Point, home to a large pro-Beijing community, a Reuters witness saw one man in a white T-shirt sprawled on the ground with head wounds.

Hong Kong media reported that groups of pro-Beijing supporters had attacked journalists.

Police eventually intervened and sealed off some roads to try to restore order, and they were seen taking away several men and women from an office run by a pro-Beijing association.

Democratic lawmaker Ted Hui was arrested for allegedly obstructing police, according to his Democratic Party’s Facebook page, as he tried to mediate on the streets in North Point.

(Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu; Writing by Farah Master; and James Pomfret; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Heinrich)

Hong Kong families form peaceful human chains ahead of airport protest

Protesters light up their smartphones as they form a human chain during a rally to call for political reforms in Hong Kong's Central district, China, August 23, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

By Jessie Pang and Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of chanting Hong Kong protesters joined hands to form human chains on Friday in a peaceful protest, with almost three months of anti-government demonstrations showing no sign of let-up across the Chinese-ruled territory.

Demonstrators, families young and old, some people masked, some using hand wipes to stay clean, linked hands across different districts as others held up banners thanking overseas nations for supporting “freedom and democracy” in Hong Kong.

Their move echoed one on Aug. 23, 1989, when an estimated 2 million people joined arms across the three Baltic states in a protest against Soviet rule that became known as the “Baltic Way” or “Baltic Chain”.

“I joined the Hong Kong Way because it’s peaceful,” said protester Peter Cheung, 27. “This is the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way. I hope there will be a bigger chance to make an international noise.”

The protest, which included dozens shining lights from the top of Kowloon’s Lion Rock, visible from the main island of Hong Kong, showed the apparent defiance of Hong Kong people after warnings from Communist Party leaders in Beijing and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam about violence.

Police presence was thin and the protest ended promptly at 9 p.m. (1300 GMT).

But protesters are also planning a “stress test” of the airport this weekend and some, wearing their traditional black garb, were making their way from the nearby suburban town of Tung Chung on Friday night.

The protests, triggered by a now-suspended bill that would have allowed extraditions to China, have plunged the former British colony into its worst crisis since its return to China in 1997 and pose a major challenge for Beijing.

The unrest has widened into calls for greater freedom, fueled by worries about the erosion of rights guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula, adopted after the 1997 handover, such as an independent judiciary and the right to protest.

The airport, reached by a gleaming suspension bridge carrying both rail and road traffic, was forced to close last week when protesters, barricading passageways with luggage trolleys, metal barriers and other objects, clashed with police.

China’s Hong Kong affairs office condemned the mayhem as “near-terrorist acts”.

“Go to the airport by different means, including MTR, airport bus, taxi, bike and private car to increase pressure on airport transport,” protest organizers wrote online on Friday.

The Airport Authority published a half-page notice in newspapers urging young people to “love Hong Kong” and said it opposed acts that blocked the airport, adding that it would keep working to maintain smooth operations.

Hong Kong’s high court extended an order restricting protests at the airport. Some activists had apologized for last week’s airport turmoil.

The Canadian consulate said it had suspended travel to mainland China for local staff, just days after a Chinese employee of the city’s British consulate was confirmed to have been detained in China.

Beijing has said that Simon Cheng, the consulate employee, was detained in the border city of Shenzhen neighboring Hong Kong. It has accused Britain and other Western countries of meddling in its affairs in Hong Kong.

Canada’s latest travel advisory on Thursday warned of reports of increased screening of travelers’ digital devices at border crossings between mainland China and Hong Kong.

“HIDDEN AIM”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Canada’s decision not to allow local staff to visit the mainland was one for Canada, which it respected. If people came to China and followed the law, they would have no problems, he told a daily news briefing.

“But if you have a hidden aim, and are hatching a sinister plot, then I fear in China you need to be in a state of apprehension and extra careful.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said it had received multiple reports of Chinese border officials detaining journalists and searching their digital devices when traveling between the mainland and Hong Kong.

The protests are taking a toll on Hong Kong’s economy and tourism, with the special administrative region on the cusp of its first recession in a decade.

Transport Secretary Frank Chan said airport passenger volume from Aug. 1 to Aug. 21 was down 11% from the same period last year, with cargo volume down 14%.

Commerce Secretary Edward Yau said visitor arrivals started to fall in mid-July. For Aug. 15 to Aug. 20, arrivals were down 49.6% on the corresponding 2018 period.

“It was the fastest and steepest drop in recent years, and the situation is obviously very worrisome,” he told reporters.

The protests have caused corporate casualties, most dramatically at the Cathay Pacific <0293.HK> airline, amid mounting Chinese scrutiny of the involvement of some of its staff in protests.

Cathay confirmed on Friday that Rebecca Sy, the head of Cathay Dragon’s Airlines Flight Attendants’ Association, was no longer with the company. Her departure follows the shock resignation of Cathay Chief Executive Rupert Hogg last week.

Demonstrators have five demands: withdraw the extradition bill, set up an independent inquiry into the protests and perceived police brutality, stop describing the protests as “rioting”, waive charges against those arrested, and resume political reform.

Beijing has sent a clear warning that forceful intervention is possible, with paramilitary forces holding drills just over the border.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Lukas Job, Donny Kwok, Anne Marie Roantree and Twinnie Siu in Hong Kong, Brenda Goh in Shanghai and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alison Williams)

From ‘Asia’s finest’ to ‘black dogs’: Hong Kong police under pressure

FILE PHOTO: Riot police ask anti-extradition bill protesters to leave in front of public housing after a march at Sha Tin District of East New Territories, Hong Kong, China July 14, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

By Greg Torode and Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s vaunted police force is facing a crisis of confidence and leadership amid the city’s worsening political tensions, according to serving and retired officers, politicians and security analysts.

The force is 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, they warned.

“The lower ranks are feeling lost and confused,” said one retired officer who remains in close touch with former colleagues. “There is clearly a lack of leadership at key moments and a sense that there is not enough support from the government and that is having an impact on commanders.”

A police statement to Reuters did not respond directly to questions about morale and concerns among officers, but said: “violent protests seriously undermine the rule of law”.

“The police, with the mission of upholding the law of Hong Kong, would definitely stand at the forefront to maintain public safety and order,” the statement said.

As the street-level face of the government during protests, police say they are easy targets for public rage, but protesters say they have used excessive force at times and their surveillance tactics are heavy-handed.

Britain handed the global financial hub back to Chinese rule in 1997 with guarantees that its wide freedoms and autonomy, including the right to protest, would be maintained.

Huge street protests last month against a bill to allow people to be sent for trial in mainland China have evolved into almost daily demonstrations.

Though the city’s government insists the bill is now effectively dead, activists continue to demand that it is formally scrapped, and are also calling for independent inquiries into police actions, democratic reforms and the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

RUNNING SKIRMISHES

Two initially peaceful protests at the weekend degenerated into running skirmishes between baton-wielding riot police and activists, one in a suburban shopping mall crowded with Sunday shoppers.

The fights followed larger outbreaks of violence between police and protesters in central Hong Kong last month, with police forcing back activists with tear gas, rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds.

Thousands surrounded the police’s headquarters a few days later, trapping senior force brass and junior officers inside the building for several hours.

Another senior serving officer said the fact that there was no apparent end in sight to Hong Kong’s political tensions was further fuelling uncertainty across the 30,000-strong force.

“We are in uncharted waters….no one knows where this is going,” he said.

A police union covering some 20,000 junior officers wrote to force chiefs this week to seek fresh guarantees their safety and mental health would be protected. Officers should not be deployed to dangerous situations unless management had “confidence in the conditions, including tactics and equipment”, the letter said.

Beyond a small core of activists who are increasingly prepared to fight police with umbrellas, hard hats and street furniture, some officers are expressing shock at the verbal abuse they are facing during even small, peaceful gatherings.

In recent days, Reuters witnesses have seen groups of police routinely sworn at and cursed by commuters, with some calling them “black dogs”. Others have chased away plainclothes officers taking photographs.

A Wikipedia page on the force was apparently hacked this week, with the phrase “black dogs” inserted.

It marks a swift change, with Hong Kong police long priding themselves on being “Asia’s finest” given the city’s international reputation for public safety and order, and strong working relationships with foreign police agencies.

After battling leftist rioting in the 1960s and institutionalized corruption in the 1970s, force chiefs worked hard to improve training and boost its reputation for professionalism.

Police stand guard at Hong Kong's tourism district Tsim Sha Tsui during anti-extradition bill protest, China July 7, 2019. Picture taken July 7, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Police stand guard at Hong Kong’s tourism district Tsim Sha Tsui during anti-extradition bill protest, China July 7, 2019. Picture taken July 7, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

WORSENING TENSIONS

Veteran Democratic Party lawmaker James To said he was deeply concerned at the worsening tensions between the police and the public.

To said he was aware that many police felt angry they were “shouldering the blame” for the incompetence of the government. He was worried too that public anger towards law enforcers had reached a level never before seen in the city.

“This a very worrying turn of events and if the government cannot solve things politically, then they should give clear guidance to the police,” said To.

Steve Vickers, a former commander of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau who now runs a risk consultancy, said it was critical that force morale be sustained and improved “so that they can have confidence that they will not be ‘thrown under a bus’ by Carrie Lam’s administration should they take necessary firmer action.”

He said the government should allow the police to use tear-gas more freely so they can disperse violent groups more safely than using baton charges. “Batons and hand-to-hand fighting always results in serious injury,” he said.

Lam’s office did not immediately respond to Reuters’ questions.

If tensions continued to worsen and Hong Kong police struggled to maintain order, some foreign security analysts believed Beijing could be tempted to deploy the mainland’s paramilitary People’s Armed Police to Hong Kong.

While neither governments had any appetite to deploy locally-based Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops, the PAP could be an interim measure, they said.

The PAP is a dedicated anti-riot force that is now under the sole command of China’s Central Military Commission and has units based across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen, according to Chinese media reports.

The Chinese Defence Ministry did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

To, the lawmaker, said he believed deploying the PAP would still be a too-dramatic move and would not be acceptable to either the Hong Kong police or the public.

(Reporting By Greg Torode and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Black-clad, anti-extradition protesters singing “Hallelujah to the Lord” flood streets of Hong Kong

Protesters gather outside police headquarters in Hong Kong, China June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang

By Jessie Pang and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of demonstrators blockaded police headquarters on Friday as Asia’s leading financial center braced itself for a third weekend of mass protests against an extradition bill that has plunged the Chinese-ruled city into crisis.

Groups of mostly students wearing hard hats, goggles and face masks set up roadblocks and trapped vehicles in a generally peaceful protest to demand that leader Carrie Lam, who promoted and then postponed the bill, scrap it altogether.

“Having people here is giving pressure to the government that we don’t agree with your extradition plans,” said student Edison Ng, who was protesting in sweltering heat of about 32 degrees Celsius (90F).

“It is not clear how long we will stay… To go or not to go, (the) people will decide,” he added.

The protests, which pose the greatest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012, once again forced the temporary closure of Hong Kong government offices over security concerns.

Roads that would normally be jammed with traffic near the heart of the former British colony were empty, with demonstrators reinforcing roadblocks with metal barriers.

“Never surrender,” echoed through the streets as the protesters chanted near police headquarters and called on police chief Stephen Lo to step down.

Riot police armed with helmets and shields appeared from the balcony of police headquarters but withdrew back inside after heavy chanting from the crowd. Police warned activists through loud hailers not to charge.

Thousands remained outside government buildings on Friday night, with the majority sitting peacefully and spraying each other with water to keep cool. Nearby, a large group sang “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”, which has emerged as the unlikely anthem of the protests.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, since when it has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including a much-cherished independent judiciary.

Millions of people, fearing further erosion of those freedoms, have clogged the streets of the Asian financial center this month to rally against the bill, which would allow people to be extradited to the mainland to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.

It triggered the most violent protests in decades when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowds. Beijing’s squeeze sparked pro-democracy protests in 2014 that paralyzed parts of the city for 79 days.

Many accuse China of obstructing democratic reforms, interfering with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.

Friday’s marchers demanded that the government drop all charges against those arrested in last week’s clashes, charge police with what they describe as violent action and stop referring to the protests as a riot.

A small group of demonstrators hurled eggs at police outside the headquarters to protest against police violence. Amnesty International in a statement on Friday that evidence of unlawful use of force by police during the June 12 protest was “irrefutable”.

The government in a statement late on Friday said the protests had caused much disruption and appealed to protesters to act peacefully and rationally. With regard to the bill, it said the government had put a stop to legislation on the matter.

“SINCERE AND HUMBLE ATTITUDE”

Opponents of the extradition bill fear the law could put them at the mercy of the mainland Chinese justice system which is plagued by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detentions.

The turmoil has also raised questions over Lam’s ability to govern, two years after she was selected and pledged to “unite and move forward”.

Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng became the latest government minister to apologize over the bill.

“Regarding the controversies and disputes in society arising from the strife in the past few months, being a team member of the government, I offer my sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong,” Cheng wrote in her blog.

“We promise to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public.”

While Lam admitted shortcomings over the bill and said she had heard the people “loud and clear”, she has rejected repeated calls to step down.

Concerns over the bill spread quickly, from democratic and human rights groups to the wider Hong Kong community, including pro-establishment business figures, some usually loath to contradict the government. Some Hong Kong tycoons have started moving personal wealth offshore.

Hong Kong’s Bar Association said in a statement that it was asking the government to withdraw the extradition bill and make a commitment that any legislation would not proceed without having a full and open consultation.

Protesters had gathered early on Friday outside government offices before marching toward police headquarters. One activist read a letter of support from a Taiwan student.

“Brave HKers, perhaps when faced with adversity, we are all fragile and small, but please do not give up defending everything that you love,” the protester read through a loud hailer to applause.

Beijing has never renounced the use of force to take over self-ruled Taiwan, which it regards as a recalcitrant, breakaway province. Many have waved Taiwan flags at recent demonstrations in Hong Kong, images certain to rile authorities in Beijing.

Taiwan, overwhelmingly opposed to a “one country, two systems” formula for itself, has voiced support for Hong Kong.

(Additional reporting by Jessie Pang, Vimvam Tong, Clare Jim, Anne Marie Roantree, Farah Master, Twinnie Siu, Sijia Jiang Felix Tam, Ryan Chang; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Farah Master; Editing by Clarence Fernandez; Nick Macfie and Toby Chopra)