Hong Kong protesters confront police to try to free campus allies

Anti-goverment protesters trapped inside Hong Kong Polytechnic University abseil onto a highway and escape before being forced to surrender during a police besiege of the campus in Hong Kong, China November 18, 2019. HK01/Handout via REUTERS

Hong Kong protesters confront police to try to free campus allies
By Nick Macfie and David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police used tear gas and water cannon on Monday against protesters who tried to break through cordons and reach a university at the centre of a week-long standoff between demonstrators and law enforcement.

The black-clad protesters hurled petrol bombs as they tried to get to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, occupied by activists during a week that has seen the most intense violence in five months of anti-government demonstrations.

“We have been trying to rescue them all day,” said a young man in a blue T-shirt, cap and spectacles, running down Nathan Road, the Kowloon district’s main commercial street. “They are trapped in there.”

Later, about a dozen protesters pinned inside the campus escaped on the backs of waiting motorbikes after lowering themselves with rope onto the road.

The size of demonstrations has dwindled in recent weeks, but clashes between protesters and police have escalated sharply since early last week, when police shot a protester, a man was set on fire and the city’s financial district was filled with tear gas in the middle of the workday.

On Monday night, protesters under cover of umbrellas huddled along the median strip in Nathan Road, filling bottles with petrol to make crude bombs, a weapon they have used increasingly.

Some residents were trapped at police cordons, and all the shops along a stretch of commercial strip that is usually one of Hong Kong’s busiest were shut.

TIGHTENED CORDON

Earlier on Monday, police tightened their cordon around the Polytechnic University, and fired rubber bullets and tear gas to pin back about 100 anti-government protesters armed with petrol bombs and other weapons and stop them from fleeing.

Dozens, choking on the tear gas, tried to leave the campus by breaking through police lines, but were pushed back.

“The police might not storm the campus but it seems like they are trying to catch people as they attempt to run,” Democratic lawmaker Hui Chi-fung told Reuters.

“It’s not optimistic now. They might all be arrested on campus. Lawmakers and school management are trying to liaise with the police but failed.”

Police said officers had been deployed “on the periphery” of the campus for a week, appealing to “rioters” to leave.

“All roads to Poly U are blocked,” said a policeman who stopped Reuters reporters at a road block on Monday night. “All are blocked.”

ARRESTS MOUNT

Police say 4,491 people, aged from 11 to 83, have been arrested since protests began in June.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in Hong Kong’s promised freedoms when the then British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. They say they are responding to excessive use of force by police.

China says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula granting Hong Kong autonomy. The city’s police deny accusations of brutality and say they show restraint.

China’s foreign ministry said on Monday no one should underestimate its will to protect its sovereignty.

On Sunday, Chinese soldiers in a base close to the university were seen monitoring developments at the university with binoculars, some dressed in riot gear.

On Saturday, Chinese troops in shorts and T-shirts, some carrying red plastic buckets or brooms, emerged from their barracks in a rare public appearance to help clean up debris.

The unrest poses the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. Beijing denies interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs and has blamed Western countries for stirring up unrest.

The Hong Kong government invoked a colonial-era emergency law in October banning faced masks commonly used by protesters. The High Court ruled on Monday the ban was unconstitutional and police said they would suspend all such prosecutions.

(Reporting by Marius Zaharia, James Pomfret, Josh Smith, Jessie Pang, Joyce Zhou, Donny Kwok, Anne Marie Roantree, Twinnie Siu, Greg Torode, Kate Lamb, Farah Master, Jennifer Hughes and Tom Lasseter in Hong Kong and Phil Stewart in Bangkok; Writing by Greg Torode and Tony Munroe; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Timothy Heritage)

China to ‘perfect’ HK system as water cannon breaks up Guy Fawkes protest

China to ‘perfect’ HK system as water cannon breaks up Guy Fawkes protest
By John Geddie and Kate Lamb

HONG KONG (Reuters) – The Chinese Communist Party said on Tuesday it would “perfect” the system for choosing the leader of Hong Kong after months of anti-government protests, as police in the ex-British colony fired water cannon to break up a Guy Fawkes-themed march.

The party said in a statement it would support its “special administrative region” of Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997, and not tolerate any “separatist behavior” either there or in neighboring Macau, an ex-Portuguese colony that was handed back to Chinese rule two years later.

Some protesters in Hong Kong, angry at perceived Chinese meddling in its freedoms, have called for independence in sometimes violent unrest, a red line for Beijing. China denies interference.

As the party statement was released by Xinhua news agency, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she had held a short meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Shanghai.

“He expressed care and concern about Hong Kong, especially given the social disturbances that we have seen in the last five months and he expressed support for the various action taken by Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government,” she told reporters.

Referring to the foundation of the 1997 deal under which Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, Lam said: “…In strict accordance with the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ (we will continue) upholding the rule of law and trying to put an end to the violence.”

The “one country, two systems” formula guarantees Hong Kong’s freedoms, including an independent judicial system, for 50 years.

Lam denied widely reported rumors that her government was considering an amnesty for protesters charged with offences, one of the demands of the protesters. “In simple terms, it will not happen,” she said.

BONFIRE NIGHT PROTESTS

After gatecrashing fancy-dress Halloween festivities on Oct. 31, hundreds of Hong Kong protesters marked Guy Fawkes Day on Tuesday in the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist district of Kowloon by wearing the white, smiling Guy Fawkes masks made popular by anti-establishment hackers, the film “V for Vendetta” and protesters globally.

Some protesters vandalized traffic lights and a restaurant perceived as being pro-Beijing, prompting police to move in with the water cannon, near the science museum, as they have done on many nights during five months of demonstrations. Some protesters were detained while others ran off.

Guy Fawkes Day, also called Bonfire Night, is celebrated with fireworks and bonfires every Nov. 5 in Britain. Effigies of “guys” are burnt, marking the night in 1605 when Fawkes was arrested for a “gunpowder plot” to blow up parliament.

“We are here to tell the government that we are not afraid of them and that they should be afraid of us,” masked protester Pete, 27, said in front of the huge, harborfront neon Christmas decorations.

Lam banned face masks last month, invoking colonial-era emergency powers for the first time in more than 50 years, but protesters have largely ignored the ruling.

China’s Communist Party, in a lengthy statement about decisions reached at a key leadership meeting known as a plenum last week, said it would improve the national security system in Hong Kong, as well as in Macau, though it gave no details.

The party decided to “establish a robust legal system and enforcement mechanism to safeguard national security in the special administrative regions and support them to strengthen law enforcement”.

The party will “perfect” the appointment and dismissal mechanisms for the leaders and senior officials of the two territories, it added, reiterating comments from a Chinese parliament official last week. Again, no details were given.

It will also perfect the system under which the party has full jurisdictional power over Hong Kong, in accordance with the constitution, Xinhua said.

The demonstrations in Hong Kong began over a since-scrapped extradition bill and escalated in mid-June against China. Protesters have kept up their calls for universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, among other demands.

The protests, which pose the gravest challenge to Xi since he came to power in 2012, have received broad support.

The number of people who take part in the mostly weekend rallies has dwindled from the millions who participated in June, but violence and vandalism have escalated. Authorities have refused permits for many recent protests, making them illegal from the outset and activists liable to be arrested.

There have been many injuries in the protests, but no deaths. A 22-year-old student at a Hong Kong university who fell during protests at the weekend was in critical condition on Tuesday, hospital authorities said.

A man stabbed at least two people on Sunday and bit off part of a politician’s ear before being beaten by protesters. A 48-year-old suspect has been charged with wounding.

Lam expressed her sympathies for the wounded, singling out the 22-year-old student.

(Reporting by Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Farah Master, Sharon Lam, Sarah Wu, Kate Lamb and John Geddie in Hong Kong and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

France’s ‘yellow vests’ clash with police in Paris

Protesters wearing yellow vests install a barricade during clashes with police at a demonstration during a national day of protest by the "yellow vests" movement in Paris, France, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

By Sybille de La Hamaide and Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) – Anti-government protesters faced off with French riot police in Paris on Saturday, hurling projectiles, torching cars and vandalizing shops and restaurants in a fourth weekend of unrest that has shaken President Emmanuel Macron’s authority.

Police used tear gas, water cannon and horses to charge protesters on roads fanning out from the Champs Elysees boulevard, but encountered less violence than a week ago, when the capital witnessed its worst unrest since the 1968 student riots.

Protesters wearing yellow vests attend a demonstration on the Grands Boulevards as part a national day of protest by the “yellow vests” movement in Paris, France, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

As night fell and many demonstrators started returning home, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said there had been about 10,000 protesters in Paris by early evening and some 125,000 across the country.

Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse and other cities also saw major clashes between protesters and police on Saturday.

“The situation is now under control,” Castaner said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.

He said about 120 demonstrators and nearly 20 police officers had been injured nationwide. Nearly 1,000 people had been arrested, 620 of them in Paris, after police found potential weapons such as hammers and baseball bats on them.

Philippe said police would remain vigilant through the night as some protesters continued to roam the city.

Groups of youths, many of them masked, continued skirmishing with police in the Place de la Republique area as some stores were looted.

Named after the fluorescent safety vests that French motorists must carry, the “yellow vest” protests erupted out of nowhere on Nov. 17, when nearly 300,000 demonstrators nationwide took to the streets to denounce high living costs and Macron’s liberal economic reforms.

Demonstrators say the reforms favor the wealthy and do nothing to help the poor and billed Saturday’s protest “Act IV” of their protest after three consecutive Saturdays of rioting.

The government this week canceled a planned rise in taxes on petrol and diesel in a bid to defuse the situation but the protests have morphed into a broader anti-Macron rebellion.

“Very sad day & night in Paris,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in a Twitter message. “Maybe it’s time to end the ridiculous and extremely expensive Paris Agreement and return money back to the people in the form of lower taxes?”

Protesters wearing yellow vests install a barricade during clashes with police at a demonstration during a national day of protest by the “yellow vests” movement in Paris, France, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

SHUTTERED SHOPS

The protests are jeopardizing a fragile economic recovery in France just as the Christmas holiday season kicks off.

Retailers have lost an estimated one billion euros in revenue since the protests erupted and shares in tourism-related shares saw their worst week in months.

Swathes of Paris’ affluent Right Bank north of the Seine river were locked down on Saturday, with luxury boutiques boarded up, department stores closed and restaurants and cafes shuttered. The Louvre, Eiffel Tower and the Paris Opera were also closed.

Demonstrators left a trail of destruction on Paris streets, with bank and insurance company offices’ windows smashed, cars and scooters set on fire and street furniture vandalized.

On the smashed front of one Starbucks cafe, vandals scrawled: “No fiscal justice, no social justice.”

The government had warned that far-right, anarchist and anti-capitalist groups would likely infiltrate protests and many of the skirmishes saw police tackling gangs of hooded youths, some of them covering their faces with masks.

“It feels like order is being better maintained this week,” Jean-Francois Barnaba, one of the yellow vests’ unofficial spokesmen, told Reuters.

“Last week the police were tear-gassing us indiscriminately. This time their actions are more targeted,” he added.

Tear gas fills the air during clashes with police at a demonstration during a national day of protest by the “yellow vests” movement in Paris, France, December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

MACRON U-TURN

The government this week offered concessions to soothe public anger, including scrapping next year’s planned hikes to fuel taxes in the first major U-turn of Macron’s presidency. It will cost the Treasury 4 billion euros ($4.5 billion).

But protesters want Macron to go further to help hard-pressed households, including an increase to the minimum wage, lower taxes, higher salaries, cheaper energy, better retirement benefits and even Macron’s resignation.

“We want equality, we want to live, not survive,” said demonstrator Guillaume Le Grac, 28, who works in a slaughterhouse in Britanny.

Macron is expected to address the nation early next week to possibly further soften planned reforms and tax increases.

(Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Sybille de la Hamaide, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Simon Carraud, Matthias Blamont, Marine Pennetier and Gus Trompiz; writing by Geert De Clercq and Richard Lough; editing by Gareth Jones and Jason Neely)