HONG KONG — In a dramatic escalation of force against protesters, Hong Kong police for the first time fired live ammunition directly at demonstrators Tuesday during street clashes as China celebrated the 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule. At least one protester was seriously wounded.

The live fire brought a new level of violence in a city already on edge over alleged police brutality and an erosion of freedoms — all unfolding on a highly sensitive date for China under its leader, Xi Jinping, as he presided over grand military processions in Beijing.

The clashes are likely to provoke a fresh wave of anger on the streets as Hong Kong’s unrest spills into its fifth month. Hong Kong leaders, meanwhile, face a possible reckoning over whether to keep ramping up their tactics as protests show no sign of easing and amid a severe breakdown in trust between residents and police. 

In Beijing, Xi used the grandiose anniversary ceremony to boast of China’s military and economic power — and its unity.

“Forging ahead, we must remain committed to the strategy of peaceful reunification and ‘one country, two systems.’ We will maintain the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macao,” Xi said, referring to the principle that the former European colonies have a degree of autonomy from Beijing.

But Xi’s message faced a defiant counterpoint in Hong Kong.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters — ignoring warnings from authorities — sought to reinforce their stance against Beijing: protect Hong Kong’s freedoms and grant it full democracy, or face continued and unending dissent designed to shame Xi as he deals with challenges on multiple fronts.

“It is time to show China they picked the wrong people to bully,” said Fok, a 24-year-old who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his last name, as he already has been arrested for protesting. “This is a war, and we will win it.”

Live rounds

Right after daybreak in Hong Kong, the fire-red Chinese flag was hoisted, accompanied by the Chinese anthem. But because of safety threats, officials watched from inside a convention center. A planned fireworks display also was canceled.

By midday, protesters were carrying Chinese flags with their stars rearranged into swastikas and ripping celebratory banners from buildings. Half of the subway network was closed by Tuesday night, as protests spread to more than a dozen areas.

The demonstrations descended into panic and chaos before sundown. Police used huge amounts of tear gas, water cannons filled with stinging blue dye and baton charges to clear away protesters, some of whom were peaceful while others threw bricks and gasoline bombs. Marches earlier in the day had featured families, the elderly and children.

Hong Kong police commissioner Stephen Lo, in a news conference held close to midnight, said police had arrested more than 180 protesters Tuesday, bringing the total arrested since June 9 to nearly 2,000. He said 25 officers were injured in clashes with protesters, some of whom threw a kind of “corrosive liquid” at them.

A video filmed by the Hong Kong University Students’ Union (HKUSU) Campus TV showed that a protester in the Tsuen Wan neighborhood — dressed in black, wearing a helmet and respirator, and carrying a homemade shield — was shot by a police officer wielding a revolver. The video shows the man swinging a rod at the officer before the officer fired once, at close range.

The shot sent the protester tumbling backward over another officer, who was already on the ground.

Ken Lui, a 21-year-old student at Hong Kong Baptist University and part of the HKUSU Editorial Board, was among those who saw the man, crying out in pain and bleeding from the chest. 

People “were shouting at the police, asking why they had fired at the protesters,” Lui said.

Witnesses also saw another protester who appeared to be hit by a live round in his hand in the same neighborhood.

Lo acknowledged that officers fired six live rounds when faced with “life-threatening situations.”

He also said an 18-year-old male had been shot near his left arm and was conscious when sent to the hospital. The injured man, Lo added, was placed under arrest for assaulting a police officer. The commissioner gave no definitive answer on whether the officer who fired the shot would be investigated. 

A group of Hong Kong police officers speaking privately over the WhatsApp messaging service already had begun discussing how to “protect and support” the officer and urged one another not to share his photo, according to an officer who is part of the chat group.

Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority said at least 74 people were injured, including two men who were in critical condition. The authority said it had no further details on the man shot by police as shown in the video.

The police did not provide further details on whether there were other injuries from the gunfire.

On Harcourt Road, the scene of numerous clashes over the past months, protesters’ appetite for risk was on full display. From a pedestrian bridge, riot police fired a barrage of rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd of people — who ignored it and continued advancing up a steep escalator under the cover of umbrellas. Protesters retreated only when tear gas was so thick it was difficult to see beyond a few feet. 

'Semi-police state'

Carrie Lam, the beleaguered Hong Kong chief executive whom protesters decry as a pawn of Beijing, was not in the city but instead attending celebrations in the Chinese capital. Lam had traveled to Beijing for the anniversary with a delegation of more than 200, including business tycoons and pro-China lawmakers.

The protests started in June as a rebuke against a now-scrapped piece of legislation that would have allowed criminal defendants to be transferred from Hong Kong’s independent legal system to mainland China. But perceptions of government inaction and shock over police use of force have turned the movement into a full-blown rebuke of Beijing’s tightening control over the city and revived a years-long demand for direct election of city leaders.

Pro-democracy figure and former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, who helped organize Tuesday’s march after permission was denied, said that Hong Kong resembled a “semi-police state” and that authorities had created a de facto “curfew under sunrise” by closing subway stations and searching vehicles and people throughout the city.

“Most of the people think it should be a day of mourning,” he said of China’s National Day. “For 70 years, the Communist regime has killed people. Carrie Lam is a political puppet of China; that’s why she has refused the demands and relies on the police force.”

Many protesters heeded a call put out online to tuck in their shirts, an effort to root out undercover police who protesters believe leave their shirts untucked to cover their firearms.

Some of the people in the march wore “We are Hong Kongers” ­T-shirts, a rejection of Chinese identity, and held their hands up showing all five fingers for their five demands. The government has met one of these demands — the withdrawal of the extradition bill — but has declined to make further concessions, including an independent investigation into the police.

Many also focused their efforts on mocking and otherwise defacing portraits of Xi, depicting him as the cartoon character Winnie-the-Pooh and making mock offerings to him as though he were a dead spirit needing to be appeased. Graffiti used expletives to refer to Xi, China and the Communist Party.

A handful of pro-China rallies took place around the city, with people gathering in small groups to wave the Chinese flag and sing the national anthem. At the base of the city’s Peak Tram, a historic funicular that is a major tourist destination, Mandarin-speaking visitors posed to snap smiling selfies with riot police. Hong Kong residents predominantly speak the Cantonese version of Chinese.

Word of the protester shot by the police officer spread quickly through groups of demonstrators still gathered at the time. Some gasped, and others were in tears. 

“I can’t describe it,” said Nicole, a 27-year-old consultant who was marching. “Words can’t describe the things happening in Hong Kong.” Like others, Nicole spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals from authorities.

Graffiti was sprawled across much of the city, including some quoting the farewell speech of Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong: “Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise — and that is the unshakable destiny.”

Tiffany Liang in Hong Kong and Anna Fifield in Beijing contributed to this report.