Hong Kong police have deployed water cannon trucks against protesters in Admiralty, firing water with blue dye.
Officers on the scene said over loudspeakers that the dyed water will be used for identifying protesters for later arrest.
Police also fired tear gas on Harcourt Road opposite the government’s headquarters, and at the nearby legislature’s protest zone. The first tear gas canisters were used at around 5:30pm, as police were seen firing from behind water-filled barricades and from a rooftop.
The water cannon trucks – making their second-ever appearance – first fired water into the air to disperse protesters, and at around 6pm they switched to firing dyed water.
Protesters hurled objects at police lines, as well as Molotov cocktails.
At 6.20pm, a gov’t statement condemned protesters occupying roads around Admiralty, saying they were “vandalising the Legislative Council Complex, and throwing petrol bombs, corrosives and bricks.”
“After repeated but futile warnings, Police have deployed minimum force to disperse the protestors, including coloured water and tear gas,” it added.
The Civil Human Rights Front — a coalition of around 50 pro-democracy groups that have organised a number of mass rallies over the past three months — cancelled a march scheduled for Saturday. Organisers cited potential clashes between protesters and police after the force refused to approve the march and after a subsequent appeal was rejected.
But thousands took to the streets earlier on Saturday anyway to conduct a “prayer walk for sinners” while reiterating the five core demands of pro-democracy protesters.
Crowds congregated at Southorn Playground in Wan Chai, departing at around 1:20pm towards the Chinese Methodist Church on Johnston Road while praying and singing “Singing Hallelujah to the Lord” — a hymn adopted early on in the protest movement.
The event was billed as a religious gathering which, under the Public Order Ordinance, does not require a letter of no objection from the police as long as there are less than 30 participants.
The government also released a statement on Friday evening saying that it is still necessary to notify the force of a large-scale public procession for religious purposes under Section 13 of the ordinance.
Christopher Yeung, a Catholic who was leading the march, told HKFP that the march was not a protest but a religious gathering.
“We are conducting today’s activity very peacefully. I think the police should help us… if they [said] they are helping citizens to express their views,” he said. “If clashes break out then that is the responsibility of the police [to handle them.]”
August 31 also marks the fifth anniversary of a controversial white paper on Hong Kong democracy handed down from Beijing, which sought to impose restrictions on the city’s small-circle election for its chief executive. The framework, proposed in 2014 by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee — China’s top lawmaking body — sparked the 79-day occupation movement, popularly known as the Umbrella Revolution, but was eventually rejected by lawmakers.
Ms Yip, a 25-year-old banker, told HKFP that although she is secular she believed that Saturday’s gathering was an opportunity to express personal views regardless of religious belief.
“It’s about everything! The five demands, the large-scale arrests, the denial of our right to political expression,” she said. “Even if we obtain a letter of no objection, the police still crack down on us.”
“I don’t want any Hong Kong citizens to be injured,” Yip added. “We can’t afford to sacrifice anymore, we can’t afford to allow any more of our youngsters to be persecuted by the regime.”
Traffic ground to a halt along Hennessey Road as crowds marched towards the police headquarters in Wan Chai, which continued to be enclosed by water-filled barriers. Officers there raised a yellow sign warning crowds that they were breaching the law and could be prosecuted, prompting them to move on towards Admiralty along Queensway.
At around 3:18pm, the government released a statement saying that those erecting roadblocks in Causeway Bay were participating in an unauthorised assembly and urged them to disperse.
“Police appeal to members of the public to leave immediately. Due to the obstruction of traffic, drivers are advised to stay tuned to the latest traffic arrangement,” it read.
Saturday’s outpouring comes a day after mass arrests of prominent activists and political figures for offences related to inciting, organising or attending an unauthorised assembly. Those rounded up included pro-democracy lawmakers Cheng Chung-tai, Au Nok-hin and Jeremy Tam, as well as activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and founder of the banned pro-independence Hong Kong National Party Andy Chan.
The MTR Corporation announced earlier that Sai Ying Pun station, which is near the China Liaison Office, would close from 1:30pm. The office has become a target for protesters since July in the ongoing anti-extradition bill movement. The rail operator cited “public activities likely to be taking place in Hong Kong Island” as the reason for the preemptive station closure.
Some shops in Central closed their shutters in response to the crowds forming outside.
A four-metre tall “Statue of Democracy” was erected at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Cultural Square on Saturday, depicting an individual equipped with a helmet, goggles and gas mask, holding a protest flag in their left hand and an umbrella in the right.
In a statement on Saturday evening, the government ruled out restarting democratic reform: “Issues relating to constitutional development are extremely controversial and the Government must act prudently. Rashly embarking on political reform again will further polarise society, which is an irresponsible act. Any discussions on constitutional development have to be premised on the legal basis, and be conducted under a peaceful atmosphere with mutual trust in a pragmatic manner.”
The city has entered its 13th consecutive week of protests, sparked by the ill-fated extradition bill that would have allowed case-by-case fugitive transfers to China. Since June, large-scale demonstrations have morphed into sometimes violent displays of dissent over Beijing’s encroachment, democracy, alleged police brutality, surveillance and other community grievances.
Additional reporting: Holmes Chan.
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