HONG KONG — Protesters occupied a significant swath of the city center for hours on Sunday, defacing and vandalizing the Chinese government’s liaison office in a new provocation aimed at Beijing, before police pushed them back with rounds of tear gas and projectiles.
Elsewhere in Hong Kong, a pro-Beijing mob attacked protesters with bats and sticks at a subway station, injuring 36 people, including a pro-democracy lawmaker — a new development in the chaos churning here in the seventh consecutive week of demonstrations.
Sunday’s protest began as a peaceful march organized by the Civil Human Rights Front aimed once again at getting Hong Kong’s government to fully withdraw a controversial extradition bill, among other demands. The group has organized some of the largest of the recent marches, including the June demonstration that brought nearly 2 million into the streets.
Organizers estimated that 430,000 people showed up this time, defying police warnings of potential violence and exhortations to disperse at the end of a short approved route.
Police altered the route to keep protesters away from central Hong Kong and government buildings in the Admiralty district. They erected large water-filled barriers around the legislature, a focus of past protests, and glued bricks to the ground to prevent their use as makeshift weapons.
But much of the effort proved to be in vain as the protesters bypassed their usual targets and focused instead for a time on the Chinese government liaison office, the greatest symbol of Beijing’s rising influence on the semiautonomous territory, and covered it in graffiti. They pelted the building with eggs and spray-painted graffiti calling Chinese President Xi Jinping a “dog,” but they did not try to enter.
The Hong Kong government said it “strongly condemns the protesters who blatantly challenged the national sovereignty by maliciously besieging and storming the [Chinese government liaison] building as well as defacing the national emblem.”
The government said in a statement that such acts threaten “law and order” and the “one country, two systems” framework that gives Hong Kong a degree of autonomy from China.
Protesters spread out across central parts of the island, making it difficult for officers to swiftly clear them off roads. Metal road dividers, road signs and construction materials were pulled from throughout the city and turned into makeshift weapons.
“We have been fighting for quite a while, so we know what to do,” said a 22-year-old demonstrator in a gas mask who declined to give his name for fear of arrest. “Protesters have upgraded our defenses, using shields and sticks. Everyone has geared up.”
Around 10:15 p.m., police began firing tear gas at protesters near a ferry terminal that connects Hong Kong to Macao. The roads were largely cleared by midnight.
Earlier Sunday, a group of protesters broke police lines and headed down streets that were not authorized for their march. Main thoroughfares again turned into encampments for protesters, who stopped to rest on cement road barricades and overpasses.
Police issued repeated warnings for protesters to disperse, even suggesting specific public transportation routes, but many demonstrators continued on.
“There’s an ‘arrest me, fight me’ kind of attitude,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy legislator who took part in the march.
Demonstrators again used social media and other online tools to keep tabs on police activity. They shared locations of police barricades and heavy security on Telegram, a messaging app that has been popular throughout the protests, and used interactive Google maps to indicate first aid and water points.
It was the seventh consecutive weekend of demonstrations in Hong Kong, which is bracing for a long summer of discontent and periodic violence. On Saturday, police said they arrested a man suspected of stashing “extremely powerful” homemade explosives in a warehouse. The 27-year-old was part of a group that advocates Hong Kong independence.
Police said they also found acid, knives and metal rods at the warehouse.
Authorities have warned that hundreds of arrests related to earlier protests are imminent.
On Sunday in Yuen Long, a part of the city near the overland border with China, a pro-Beijing group of a few hundred men dressed in white shirts entered the subway station and pummeled people with sticks and bats, targeting anti-government protesters returning from the march as well as journalists. They stormed a train and hit people inside, according to videos shared of the incident and local media. Trains were forced to skip the station, and there was blood on the floor.
Pro-democracy lawmakers and residents of the neighborhood said they had been calling police for hours, but none arrived at the station until the mob left. Police made no arrests.
The weeks-long upheaval was sparked by a proposal that would allow extraditions to China, but it has since swelled into a broader movement pushing for greater autonomy for Hong Kong in the face of a more assertive Beijing.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has characterized the extradition proposal as “dead” but has stopped short of fully withdrawing it from the legislature. She has not heeded protesters’ demand that an independent commission investigate police action during the demonstrations.
Analysts say Lam’s government faces mounting pressure to find a political solution as Beijing grows increasingly impatient with the protests and growing calls for universal suffrage and other pro-democracy reforms. Hong Kong’s leader is not elected directly, but chosen by a small committee from a pool of candidates screened by Beijing.
Predictions that the protest momentum would die down have yet to prove accurate, and demonstrations have continued weekend after weekend.
Last week, thousands of elderly Hong Kongers, some in wheelchairs, some in walkers, showed up in support of the generally younger crowd that has led the marches on Sundays. As riot police readied tear gas, elderly women were on the front lines preparing to hand flowers to the officers and protesters.“If we keep getting together and showing the government what we are thinking, maybe one day we will get there — even if I’m not sure when that will be,” she added.
There was no dress code for the rally Sunday, but the crowd was again overwhelmingly in black, a color symbolizing anger and mourning over the death of Hong Kong.
“I can’t call [these protests] a battle because we are too weak to fight the government,” said Vivian Zee, 38, who participated in the peaceful march early in the day. “But we want to continue our fight however we can, to show the government that Hong Kong has a voice.”
She and her partner said they have been out on the streets about four times over the past month and would not stop participating.