Asia-Pacific

Hong Kong police fire rubber bullets, tear gas as protests descend into chaos

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Black-clad activists, many wearing masks, defied police orders and marched beyond the official end-point of a rally over an extradition bill that has plunged the Chinese-ruled financial hub into crisis.

Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets and tear gas in running clashes with protesters late on Sunday amid chaotic scenes as anger over an extradition bill morphs into a fresh front against what many see as a broader erosion of freedoms by Beijing.

Thousands of protesters descended on China's representative office in the city, in a direct challenge to authorities in Beijing, just hours after the latest demonstrations to rock the Asian financial centre.

Protesters carry many umbrellas as they occupy a section of Harcourt Road close to the legislative Council.
Protesters carry many umbrellas as they occupy a section of Harcourt Road close to the legislative Council.
AAP

The initial protests were lit by a now-suspended bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.

But they have since evolved into a wider movement calling for democratic reforms, universal suffrage and a halt to sliding freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory.

Millions have taken to the streets in the past two months in an unprecedented show of force against Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, triggering the worst social turmoil to rock the former British colony since it returned to Chinese rule 22 years ago.

Black-clad activists, many wearing masks, defied police orders and marched beyond the official end-point of a rally that took place earlier in the day as they made their way towards the Liaison Office, in a direct challenge to authorities in Beijing.

Hundreds of riot police faced off with protesters more than a kilometre from the Liaison Office, firing tear gas as police and ambulance sirens echoed through the chanting crowds. Local broadcaster RTHK and other local media reported police also fired rubber bullets. Police did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Activists had daubed graffiti on massive concrete pillars leading up to Beijing's Liaison Office, with the words "Restore Hong Kong, Revolution of The Time".

The Hong Kong government said in a statement it strongly condemned the demonstrators' "malicious encirclement" of the Liaison Office building, while a spokesman for the office expressed "severe condemnation" at the "radical demonstrators".

Sunday's rally is the seventh weekend in-a-row that residents have come out en-masse.

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18 July: Thousands of elderly march for political reform in Hong Kong
18 July: Thousands of elderly march for political reform in Hong Kong

Anita Poon, 35, said she decided to join for the first time after watching a rally by elderly people earlier in the week.

"When even the grannies are coming out, how can we just watch this on TV?" she told AFP.

"The government has not responded to the voices of the people, that's why this keeps happening," she added.

Security measures 

Generally, the marches have passed off peacefully, but some have been followed by violence between riot police and small groups of more hardcore protesters who feel years of peaceful demonstrations have achieved little.

Security was tightened in the city centre, with metal street fencing often used by protesters to build barricades removed ahead of the march, and large water-filled barriers thrown up around the police headquarters.

At the end of the march, protesters occupied a major road next to the city's parliament and a large crowd gathered outside the police headquarters, which has previously been blockaded twice before.

Riot officers maintained little presence and the atmosphere was calm, although the police said they had closed down the emergency response room at the headquarters.

The huge crowds have had little luck persuading the city's unelected leaders - or Beijing - to change tack on the hub's future.

Under the 1997 handover deal with Britain, China promised to allow Hong Kong to keep key liberties such as its independent judiciary and freedom of speech.

Protesters hold placards reads "Form an independent investigation on legislative" as they take part in a march in Hong Kong.
Protesters hold placards reads "Form an independent investigation on legislative" as they take part in a march in Hong Kong.
AAP

But many say those provisions are already being curtailed, citing the disappearance into mainland custody of dissident booksellers, the disqualification of prominent politicians and the jailing of pro-democracy protest leaders.

Authorities have also resisted calls for the city's leader to be directly elected by the people.

Protesters have vowed to keep their movement going until their core demands are met, such as the resignation of city leader Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into police tactics, amnesty and permanent withdrawal of the bill.

They have also begun calling once more for universal suffrage.

Little sign of compromise 

There is little sign that either Lam or Beijing is willing to budge.

Beyond agreeing to suspend the extradition bill there have been few other concessions and fears are rising that Beijing's patience is running out.

Earlier this week the South China Morning Post reported that Beijing was drawing up a plan to deal with Hong Kong, citing sources on the mainland.

A woman embraces a Chinese flag during pro-government Safeguard Hong Kong rally at Tamar Park
A woman embraces a Chinese flag during pro-government Safeguard Hong Kong rally at Tamar Park
AAP

The details published suggested little appetite to defuse public anger over sliding freedoms and instead focused on shoring up support for Lam and the police.

A group of prominent activists from the leaderless movement read out a manifesto ahead of the march detailing protesters' frustrations - the same words that were read out during the 1 July storming of the legislature.

"For too long our government has lied and deceived and refused to respond to the demands of the people despite numerous mass demonstrations of the past month," the activists said.

On Saturday, the establishment mustered its own supporters in their tens of thousands for a rally, a gathering that was covered in detail by Chinese state media and pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong.

Few see a political solution to the crisis on the horizon.

Steve Vickers, a former head of the police's Criminal Investigation Bureau before the handover who now runs a risk consultancy, said the public order situation would likely "worsen" in the coming weeks.

"Polarisation within Hong Kong society and intense acrimony between protesters and police are deepening," he wrote in a note to clients."

Tensions have been further stoked after police on Saturday said they had discovered a homemade laboratory making high-powered explosives.

A 27-year-old man was arrested and pro-independence materials were also discovered.

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