Monday 27 January 2020

Arrests as Hong Kong protests curtail New Year's celebrations

Pro-democracy supporters wave flags and shout slogans during a countdown party in Hong Kong. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
Pro-democracy supporters wave flags and shout slogans during a countdown party in Hong Kong. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Jessie Pang and Mari Saito

Thousands of Hong Kong revellers welcomed in 2020 on neon-lit promenades along the picturesque Victoria Harbour, breaking into pro-democracy chants as the clocks struck midnight after more than half a year of often violent unrest.

Protesters briefly blocked Nathan Road, a key artery leading through Kowloon to the harbour, after forming human chains across the Chinese-ruled city and marching through shopping malls, urging people not to give up the fight for democracy in 2020.

The protesters fled when police came to clear the road of umbrellas, street furniture and debris and a three-metre-tall skeleton of a metal Christmas tree. Several arrests were made.

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Authorities had cancelled the popular new year fireworks for the first time in a decade, citing security concerns. A "Symphony of Lights" took place instead, involving projections on the city's tallest skyscrapers after the countdown to midnight.

There were small-scale pyrotechnics on waterfront rooftops, but the grandiose fireworks launched from vessels in the centre of the harbour, broadcast around the world every year, were absent.

The carnival atmosphere on the harbour was interrupted as parts of the crowd watching the show began chanting protest slogans.

The protesters are angry at what they see as creeping Beijing influence in the city which was guaranteed wide-ranging autonomy when it returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Beijing denies interference and blames the West for fomenting the unrest.

"I hope people can continue fighting in 2020," 28-year-old engineer Eric Wong said. "We should not forget the people in jail who could not count down to the new year with us."

On Nathan Road, protesters in a chain stretching for several kilometres raised lit-up smartphones as passing cars and buses honked in support and tourists in party hats and 2020-shaped glasses took pictures. Many protesters held up cards reading "Let's keep fighting together in 2020."

The chain later spilled over on to the road, and some protesters built barricades and hid behind umbrellas until police chased them away. A water cannon truck, flanked by an armoured jeep, patrolled the road at midnight.

"This year there are no fireworks, but there will probably be tear gas," said 25-year-old IT worker Sam. "For us it's not really New Year's Eve. We have to resist every day."

Dozens of people had earlier laid flowers at the Prince Edward metro station, scene of some of the most violent clashes with the police this summer.

The protests began in June in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and have evolved into a broader pro-democracy push.

The protest movement is supported by 59pc of city residents polled in a survey conducted for Reuters by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. More than a third of respondents said they had attended an anti-government demonstration.

In a New Year's Eve video message, chief executive Carrie Lam said the unrest had caused sadness, anxiety, disappointment and rage.

"Let's start 2020 with a new resolution, to restore order and harmony in society. So we can begin again, together," Lam said.

Police, who reject allegations of brutality and say they have shown restraint, have arrested nearly 6,500 people since the protests began escalating in what is the worst political crisis faced by the city in decades.

Tens of thousands of people were expected to join a pro-democracy march today, starting from a park in the city centre and ending in the heart of the financial district. The previous march drew an estimated 800,000 people in early December.

Irish Independent

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