Hong Kong’s first police-approved protest march of the year was cut short after officers clashed with protesters over a vandalised bank.
March organisers Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) estimated that over 1.03 million people took to the streets on Wednesday, though they said it was difficult to give an accurate figure.
Police said that, as of 5:15pm, around 47,560 people had left the starting point – Victoria Park in Causeway Bay – while another 13,000 people were still inside.
After nightfall, police deployed water cannon trucks to Central and Wanchai, and officers later rounded up hundreds of people outside the Sogo department store in Causeway Bay. Sources at the scene told local media that over 400 were detained.
HKFP also witnessed dozens of other protesters and onlookers detained over the course of the day.
The march began peacefully at around 2:40pm, but clashes broke out at 5pm after police made an appearance at an HSBC bank branch in Wan Chai. Police arrested five people for criminal damage after they smashed the bank’s ATMs and glass doors.
HSBC became a target for vandalism after it froze an account belonging to Spark Alliance, a crowd-funded support group that provides financial aid to protesters.
Police officers – some of whom were in plainclothes – used pepper spray and tear gas after they were surrounded by angry onlookers.
An eyewitness told HKFP that officers had beaten the arrestees and dragged them inside the bank, where they were hidden from view.
Police informed the CHRF at around 5:30pm that the march – which had previously been given a letter of no objection – had been cancelled.
Riot police stationed themselves on Hennessy Road soon afterwards, hindering protesters from continuing along the original route.
In response, the CHRF blamed the police for escalating the situation and condemned their decision to cut short the march.
Vice-convenor Figo Chan said that police only gave his group around 30 minutes to “evacuate” all protesters on Hong Kong Island.
“On the first day of year 2020, the police dismissed the first licensed assembly of the year with an absurd excuse,” the group said.
“[The] Hong Kong government has shown its unwillingness to listen to the voices of the masses, infringing the right of assembly of Hong Kong citizens.”
Police deployed water cannon trucks in Central and Wanchai in the evening, which were used to douse flaming barricades and disperse protesters.
HSBC banks were targeted extensively on Wednesday and multiple branches were vandalised. In Central, frontline protesters damaged an HSBC branch and set alight an ATM, and built makeshift barricades to block traffic.
Firefighters arrive after protesters throw a Molotov at an HSBC ATM. The bank fell afoul of the movement after an account to support protesters was closed amid alleged "money laundering." pic.twitter.com/6xpI2Zfkgs
— Hong Kong Free Press (@HongKongFP) January 1, 2020
Demonstrators scattered and shouted “be water” as riot police moved in.
— Hong Kong Free Press (@HongKongFP) January 1, 2020
Meanwhile, after a temporary retreat in Causeway Bay, police officers launched a surprise operation shortly after 8pm and rounded up over 100 people on Hennessy Road.
Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui tried to intervene in Causeway Bay, but riot police knocked off his protective goggles and fired pepper spray in his face.
now : Riot police just attacked Legislative Councillor Ted Hui Chi-fung and then pepper spraying citizens and journalists pic.twitter.com/rGtn2xU5xH
— Studio Incendo (@studioincendo) January 1, 2020
The Hong Kong government said that public facilities in Causeway Bay, Wan Chai and Central were “recklessly vandalised” by masked rioters, saying that they blocked roads with barricades, dug up bricks from the pavement, and set fire to banks and ATMs.
Court and banks vandalised
Protesters on Wednesday also spray-painted slogans on the exterior of the High Court. One wrote that “the rule of law is dead” at one of the building’s entrances, and another accused judge Anthea Pang as having pro-Beijing views.
Pang in 2018 sentenced activist Edward Leung to six years in jail for rioting, and had also denied bail for some protesters in recent weeks.
The Department of Justice quickly issued a response to the vandalism, saying that people dissatisfied with court rulings “should not criticise judges abusively or impute them of political bias, otherwise, the rule of law in Hong Kong would be undermined.”
“Personal attacks and insults against judges would severely undermine the authority of the courts and damage public confidence in the judicial system,” the DOJ said.
The police also issued a statement to condemn the graffiti, which it said “defies the spirit of the law.” The case has been classified as criminal damage and will be investigated by the District Investigation Team of the Central District.
On Wednesday afternoon, the large lion statue outside the HSBC bank headquarters in Central was doused in flammable liquid and briefly set on fire.
HSBC issued a defiant response on Twitter in the evening, saying: “We strongly condemn the acts of vandalism and damage directed at our premises repeatedly in the last few days. We believe these are unjustified.”
“As a bank with deep roots in Hong Kong, we are committed to providing the highest standards of banking services to our customers. We believe the rule of law is essential to Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center and we look forward to the speedy resolution of the issues,” it added.
Separately, there were also reports of a Starbucks in Tin Hau being set alight, as well as the vandalism of multiple shops with suspected pro-China ties.
Two masked men smashed the glass of a China Life Insurance branch in Wan Chai, but – according to local media – the vandals told riot police that they were “on the same side” and were allowed to leave.
The police dismissed the allegations as “groundless and fabricated,” and said it was a calculated attempt to discredit law enforcement. The case was classified as criminal damage and under investigation by the District Investigation Team of Wan Chai District, the force added.
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