Hong Kong breathes sigh of relief as Saturday night passes with no tear gas fired as anti-government protesters cause only minor disruption and avoid clashing with police
- Protesters and police appeared at times to be on the brink of a clash in Mong Kok, but in the end, nothing came of their confrontation
- Day began with a teachers’ rally with an estimated turnout of 22,000 protesters amid an amber rainstorm
“Eight. 18 [August 18], meet in Victoria Park!” they shouted about their planned Sunday afternoon rally at Causeway Bay.
By 8pm, the protesters, who appeared to be in visibly smaller numbers than a week ago, were nowhere to be seen on the streets. Some disappeared into the MTR station in Yau Ma Tei as others melted into the weekend crowd in a shopping centre.
“We condemn the violent acts by black-clad protesters armed with bricks and sticks,” said Ng Chau-pei of the Safeguard Hong Kong Alliance, the coalition of pro-government politicians and business leaders behind the event at Tamar Park.
Organisers said that 476,000 people attended the rally, which lasted for 1½ hours and was punctuated with singing and waving of the national flag, but police estimated the crowd at 108,000 at its peak.
Over on the Kowloon side of the city, speculation had mounted that given the escalating violence of the past weeks, police might not only increase their presence but also be ready to deploy their latest weapon, the much-talked about water cannons.
But there was no such need as protesters decided to scale down their radical actions, a deliberate move not to alienate the public after the violence and chaos during their airport demonstrations earlier in the week had upset people, according to several of them.
After their march from To Kwa Wan to Hung Hom in mid-afternoon, it did appear at first as if tensions would once again lead to clashes with police as both sides began falling into a predictable pattern of actions.
As soon as the approved march ended, protesters splintered off as had happened in the past and several hundred made their way to Mong Kok Police Station. At the station, protesters began pointing laser beams at the police officers bearing shields and threw eggs at them.
A sizeable riot police contingent then appeared and began moving in, making repeated announcements warning protesters and bystanders to disperse.
Protesters then began a cat-and-mouse game with police, moving around several streets as they made their way to Yau Ma Tei and Jordan. At one point, they took over a stretch of the southbound lanes on Nathan Road near Mong Kok, putting up makeshift barriers of traffic cones, rubbish bins and small wooden stands.
Many shops along the route had closed their doors amid fears that there would be similar scenes of violence and tear gas that the city had witnessed over the past two months, nearly always after the end of rallies and marches.
As police moved in along Nathan Road with shields and batons, protesters ran away, and fled into neighbouring Sai Yeung Choi Street South, and Mong Kok Road. Some began throwing rubbish bins onto the road from a footbridge, with one hitting a police vehicle.
A police officer in riot gear then pointed his weapon towards the footbridge, firing at least one shot. No police warning flag was displayed and at least one beanbag round was found on the road later. Soon after, the protesters began dispersing. By 7.50pm, riot police vehicles moved in, swept up their men in gear and by 8pm, the last batch of protesters were nowhere in sight.
“Only around 200 of us stayed behind tonight. We were outnumbered and it is good to deploy the tactics of ‘be water’,” a protester at the scene said, repeating the mantra of the movement borrowed from the late martial arts actor Bruce Lee.
Lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, who had attended multiple protests, said protesters wanted a reprieve after the bloody clashes of last Sunday in Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay.
“Many were badly hurt and arrested last Sunday. It was a bitter battle,” he said. “After that, many have hoped for a morale boost from a massive peaceful rally on Sunday.”
Thus, frontline protesters wanted to avoid getting injured or arrested on Saturday, he added. Since June, more than 700 people have been arrested, with some 149 detained over the last weekend from Friday to Sunday.
Baptist University assistant professor Edmund Cheng Wai said protesters were now changing tactics and reverting to being peaceful, especially after their actions at the airport on Tuesday had sparked a backlash.
“This shows a reflective mechanism does exist in the movement,” Cheng said, adding the restraint showed the protesters knew they were engaged in a public opinion battle.
On Tuesday, after occupying the airport for five days, protesters began to grow suspicious about undercover policemen in their midst and ended up cable-tying, tormenting and beating up two mainland Chinese men they suspected to be spies.
Late on Friday night, police arrested a man involved in the airport attacks, for allegedly taking part in false imprisonment, illegal assembly and assault.
Organisers said 10,000 people showed up at the Saturday afternoon march but only an estimated 2,000 marched to the end point in Hung Hom. Police gave the figure of 3,500 at the start of the rally, in Hoi Sum Park. When it began, many marchers came without masks, including families with babies and children.
Early on the route, protesters targeted two pro-Beijing parties, throwing dozens of eggs and spray-painting graffiti at the district offices of the Democratic Alliance of the Progress and Betterment of Hong Kong and the Federation of Trade Unions.
They then put up posters and spray-painted the words “Pioneers of 1967 riot”, in reference to another turbulent period in Hong Kong’s history when communists and their supporters clashed with the government, at the FTU entrance. Pineapples, symbols for grenades, were put at the entrance.
A government spokesman issued a statement at around 11pm condemning illegal acts during Saturday’s protest, saying that “the illegal activities challenged Hong Kong’s rule of law, affecting the peace of society and they must be condemned.”
The spokesman said some people occupied areas that were not on the approved route while protesters had also damaged the offices of lawmakers and district facilities of an organisation. Later, some protesters gathered and threw items at the police station, he said.
Police also condemned protesters’ destruction of peace in society.
“No one should turn schools into venues for expressing political demands,” the statement read. “This not only undermines the normal operation of schools, but drags innocent students into political whirlpools and cost them the opportunities for regular learning.”
Additional reporting by Karen Zhang, Lee Jeong-ho, Kanis Leung and Victor Ting