Riot police have thrown teargas at thousands of protesters and beat many of them after a tense stand-off in Hong Kong.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators were holding an anti-government rally on Saturday, marking the city’s 12th week of protests.
As protesters reached a police station in mid-afternoon, several of them built barricades with bamboo rods and plastic traffic barriers and faced off with riot police for a couple of hours.
At about 4.40pm, hundreds of officers charged at the protesters, throwing teargas and beating them as they fled. At one point, objects on the ground were on fire as police chased protesters along the streets and into nearby buildings.
“Protesters are simply not able to defend themselves. Police are abusing their powers,” said a man watching the scene.
It was difficult for protesters to leave because the nearest metro station had closed, along with several others on the line.
The clearing operation lasted around 15 minutes, after which the street was left eerily empty. A message spray painted on the road said: “Hopes are in the people, transformation begins in struggles.”
Saturday’s rally – in Kowloon’s Kwun Tong district – was sanctioned by the police but many demonstrators still covered their faces with medical masks and many wore balaclava-style scarves and dark glasses covered with tin foil.
The key theme of the march was to oppose the government’s installation of smart lamp posts equipped with sensors, closed-circuit cameras and data networks. The government said the lamp posts would only collect air quality, traffic and weather data, although many at the protests said they had covered up out of privacy concerns.
Some handed out medical masks while others handed out tin foil to cover phones, credit cards with smart pay functions and smart identity cards that Hongkongers are mandated to carry.
“We feel unsafe, that’s why we have to speak up,” said Harry Yip, a school leaver, who said he wore a hat, reflective dark glasses and a black scarf over his face to avoid government surveillance.
“Oppose surveillance, save Hong Kong!”, shouted some, while others cried: “Free Hong Kong!”, “Reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our era!”
People also called on fellow protesters to open their umbrellas to shield their faces from surveillance cameras.
“Even though this is a police-approved march, you just never know what the police might do later,” said Chris Lam, in full protective gear.
The fear of surveillance comes amid reports that many Hong Kong residents have been interrogated upon entering mainland China, taken into rooms to have their messages and photos on their phones and computers checked. A member of the British consulate in Hong Kong, Simon Cheng, was released on Saturday after being detained in China for 15 days while there on business.
More broadly, the city’s demonstrations are aimed at pressuring the Hong Kong government into responding to protesters’ political demands, including the complete withdrawal of the now suspended extradition bill – under which individuals can be sent to China for trial – the setting up of an independent body to investigate police violence, and the free election of Hong Kong’s leaders and legislature.
On Friday night, a human chain stretched for kilometres across both sides of Hong Kong harbour as people turned out for a peaceful demonstration inspired by anti-Soviet protesters in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1989 that became known as the Baltic Way.
Hong Kong’s metro company MTR on Saturday made the unprecedented decision to stop operating trains along a large stretch of a line from 12pm in an apparent move to stop protesters from reaching the protest in Kwun Tong.
The move comes after state media accused the metro company of helping protesters avoid the police by putting on extra train services at Yuen Long on Wednesday night, after a clash between protesters and police.
The MTR Corporation has previously stopped services to stations in areas where violence has broken out, but local media noted that it had not stopped trains running before a protest before.
Numerous violent confrontations between the police and protesters have erupted during weeks of protests in Hong Kong, a regional financial hub once known as one of the world’s safest cities, in the past two and a half months.
Resentment against the government and police have reached a dangerous level among the Hong Kong population. Although largely peaceful, hardcore protesters have thrown rocks, bricks and slingshots at the police, who have used tear gas, rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and severe beatings to disperse the crowds.