A protester sets fire to an ATM outside an HSBC branch in Central district following a pro-democracy march in Hong Kong on Jan. 1. The rally began peacefully but police arrested 400 after violence flared. (Photo: Philip Fong/AFP)
Hong Kong welcomed the first day of the new decade with an anti-government rally that descended into violent clashes.
Protesters blocked roads, vandalized traffic lights, threw petrol bombs, trashed banks, attacked shops and targeted the High Court, while police responded with water cannons and pepper spray and made 400 arrests.
After ending the last day of 2019 in disarray, the former British colony set the tone on New Year’s Day for another year fraught with civil unrest as masked protesters rampaged on the streets of Hong Kong Island long after organizers were forced to call off the march early due to the violence.
The march to the central business district, which had been given the green light by police, began shortly before 3pm, with most participants flocking to the starting point at Victoria Park while others joined them along the way.
The Civil Human Rights Front, the protest organizer, claimed the turnout surpassed 1.03 million, the highest since the protests started last June, but police put the figure at 47,000 during the rally while another 13,000 were still at the starting point in the shopping district.
The rally began peacefully but trouble flared about two hours into the march at 4.30pm when radicals vandalized a branch of HSBC on Hennessy Road in Wan Chai. The bank allegedly helped police shut down one of the main sources of funding for the protest movement. The police arrested five people as angry protesters lobbed petrol bombs at them.
Just after 5.30pm, the organizers announced that the police had ordered them to end the march because of the violence, which escalated as night fell. At least five HSBC outlets were smashed up or firebombed and a branch of Starbucks was also trashed.
By 7pm, riot officers had fired multiple rounds of tear gas in Central, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, and deployed water cannons to chase protesters off the streets. The operation continued late into the night as police took control of one occupied area after another.
The rally was led by newly elected district councilors from the opposition camp, who also raised funds for Spark Alliance, filling at least six donation boxes with HK$100 and HK$500 (US$13 and US$64) notes.
Newly established trade unions also set up booths along the route, urging demonstrators to join up and help the movement with possible strike action.
According to a police statement, at least 400 people were arrested, mostly for illegal assembly and possession of offensive weapons.
On New Year’s Eve, 40 public figures from 18 countries sent an open letter to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam urging her to “seek genuine ways forward out of this crisis by addressing the grievances of Hong Kong people.”
Meanwhile, in his new year address, China’s President Xi Jinping declared Beijing would “resolutely safeguard the prosperity and stability” of Hong Kong.