Hong Kong Protesters Return to Streets as New Year Begins


HONG KONG — Hong Kong protesters began the new year the way they’d spent much of the old one: in the streets.

Nearly a month of relative quiet abruptly ended on Wednesday with the sounds of protesters’ chants and police officers’ tear-gas rifles.

A peaceful New Year’s Day march descended within a few hours into violent clashes. Riot officers deployed water cannons and pepper spray. Protesters built barricades out of umbrellas and paving stones, and vandalized at least two branches of a leading bank in the city, HSBC.

At the heart of the protests is concern about the erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong, a former colony that was promised a unique set of freedoms when Britain handed it back to China in 1997. Those fears have been compounded by economic issues, including soaring housing prices, income inequality and a dearth of high-paying jobs.

Ng Lok-Chun, a senior police superintendent, later said that about 400 people had been arrested, and that charges included taking part in an illegal assembly and possessing weapons. He said the police had revoked the march’s permission because some participants had “hijacked the procession” and “threw a petrol bomb at an officer.”

“The police were reluctant to terminate the march,” he said.

The protests began in June over legislation, long since scrapped, that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where the courts are opaque and subordinate to the Communist Party. The protesters have since expanded their demands to include a broad range of grievances, including greater democracy and an investigation of alleged police brutality.

The march on Wednesday stretched the movement’s scope further, calling on people to join labor unions with an eye toward future strikes, and to resist a feared crackdown on Hong Kong educators who have links to the movement.

Many marchers gave money at a booth set up by Spark Alliance, a fund that has raised millions of dollars to provide legal support and other kinds of aid to protesters. The donations were in defiance of a police operation last month, in which four people were arrested on suspicion of money laundering and $9 million of the fund’s assets were frozen.

On Wednesday, at least five people were detained for vandalizing a glass door and ATMs at a branch of HSBC, which had shut down Spark Alliance’s account. Banks and businesses that are perceived to have links to mainland China or the Hong Kong government have been targeted for vandalism or boycotts by some protesters.

One witness, Kan Cheng, said she saw as many as nine undercover police officers beating two young people near the bank’s broken door.

On New Year’s Eve, Mrs. Lam addressed the territory and called for calm ahead of the protest. “Let’s start 2020 with a new resolution, to restore order and harmony in society. So we can begin again, together,” she said in a video message.

“We must handle the problems at hand and acknowledge the shortcomings in our systems as well as the deep-rooted problems and conflicts that have been accumulating for many years in our society,” she said.

Mrs. Lam, who introduced and eventually withdrew the extradition bill that set off the protests, has promised to address social and economic issues that she says underlie the unrest. But the government said in a statement on Wednesday that “the top priority now is to stop violence and restore social order as soon as possible so that the daily lives of people and various business activities can return to the normal track.”

It is a message that has been echoed in Beijing. China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, who has permitted a degree of public protest in Hong Kong that is unheard-of on the mainland, mentioned the protests in his New Year’s Day address, saying that “Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability is the wish of Hong Kong compatriots and the expectation for the people of the motherland.”

Reporting was contributed by Ezra Cheung, Katherine Li and Jamie Tarabay from Hong Kong, and Chris Buckley from Beijing.





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