HONG KONG — Protesters hurled firebombs and set blazes Saturday across Hong Kong as they defied warnings to stay off the streets on a key pro-democracy anniversary — touching off some of the most dramatic clashes during 13 weeks of unrest over Beijing’s influence on the territory.
Protesters in turn set piles of rubbish and debris on fire, hoping to block advancing police. Some protesters were armed with metal poles and hammers and carried makeshift shields for protection.
At night, clashes moved from central Hong Kong to Kowloon, prompting the closure of five of the main subway lines. Videos shared on social media and messaging apps showed commuters crying and hugging each other, as pools of blood and debris littered the ground after an operation by riot police.
The protesters were marking an especially significant day in Hong Kong’s political history: Five years ago, Beijing announced a plan for limited democracy in the semiautonomous territory, kicking off a 79-day occupation of city streets that invigorated a new generation of Hong Kong activists.
The intensity of Saturday’s scenes underscored how neither protesters nor Hong Kong authorities are holding back — pushing the city even further from a resolution to the months-long crisis. Police said they arrested at least 40 people Saturday night.
A Hong Kong government statement on Saturday appeared to quash among the most fundamental of protester demands: that of direct elections for Hong Kong’s leader and lawmakers.
A government spokesperson said while universal suffrage is an “ultimate aim … rashly embarking on political reform again will further polarize society, which is an irresponsible act.”
Authorities had banned a march, organized by a group known for its ability to pull off large and nonviolent assemblies, but tens of thousands showed up anyway.
“Of course, I am not afraid of [the government],” said Eddie Wong, a 62-year-old protester wearing a black face mask. “They want us to feel fear, but they are totally wrong about who were are.”
A procession earlier in the day turned violent after several hours when police shot off tear gas to clear the crowd. The main focal point early in the day was the area outside the legislative complex that protesters briefly occupied in July.
Protesters responded with bricks, homemade gasoline bombs and flashed lasers at officers shooting at them. A forceful police advance sent them into the Wan Chai and Causeway Bay neighborhoods — known for their neon-lit bars and glitzy shopping malls.
A group gathered for a short time in the Tsim Sha Tsui area, dotted with luxury hotels, before police launched a clearance there, too.
Protesters retreated deeper into Kowloon, and riot police then stormed multiple subway stations, swinging their batons. Residents and commuters continued to be in the stations at the time, and some ran off screaming in fear. Hong Kong’s hospital authority said seven people sought treatment for protest-related problems but did not specify the type of injuries.
The clashes turned the city’s heart into a dizzying mix of flames, tear gas and deafening shouts from protesters and police alike. Two government helicopters hovered over the scene for hours.
The protesters had gathered after police arrested almost a dozen prominent activists and pro-democracy lawmakers the day before — widely perceived as a deliberately timed deterrent against further demonstrations.
A now-suspended plan to allow extraditions to mainland China floated earlier this year has again reawakened the sense that Hong Kong does not control its future, and millions have taken to the streets over the past months to protest Beijing’s creeping influence.
China has responded with hardening rhetoric, branding the protesters as rioters and even terrorists, while police have arrested more than 800.
On Saturday, China’s state broadcaster released a video of paramilitary police conducting armed drills in Shenzhen, a city that borders Hong Kong, with the caption: “Able to attack at any time!”
Hong Kong’s government has so far refused to give in to any of the protesters’ demands, including a full withdrawal of the extradition bill and an independent inquiry into the crisis and police use of force, despite widespread support for the two concessions.
“Five years ago today marked the end of a constructive dialogue with the Chinese government,” said Johnson Yeung, a veteran activist who took part in Saturday’s march and was arrested at an earlier demonstration. “They took true control of the executive branch of Hong Kong’s government.”
He added, “It really raised the bar for people and it laid the foundation of the civil resistance movement that is happening now.”
The Civil Human Rights Front, the group behind the huge, nonviolent demonstrations over recent months, had initially planned a rally through central Hong Kong to mark the anniversary. Police, however, declined to authorize the march, even after an appeal. The group on Friday said it would be canceling the rally.
“Our first principle is always to protect all the participants and make sure that no one could bear legal consequences for participating in the protests that we organized,” said Bonnie Leung, one of the leaders of the group. “We can see no way that we can keep this principle, and also continue our march and protest.”
Some participants couched their procession in religious songs and paraphernalia, hoping that a religious gathering was a way to get around the police ban. Some carried bibles, posters of Jesus and Moses and repeatedly sang “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” a song that is among the unofficial protest anthems.
Another group gathered in Causeway Bay, one of the main shopping districts in Hong Kong. It found creative ways of advertising its gathering — a day of mass shopping, a day of “viewing flowers” in neighboring parks — to get around the police ban. Among the marchers in Causeway Bay was Joshua Wong, a prominent activist and the face of the 2014 protests who had been arrested and released on bail Friday.
Police throughout the day issued multiple warnings to protesters to stop their “illegal acts.” Authorities had heavily fortified multiple points across the city — particularly Beijing’s liaison office just west of central Hong Kong.
In a statement early Sunday, police confirmed that two police officers fired live rounds, which they characterized as “warning shots,” into the air.
Saturday’s protests also came alongside what appeared to be a coordinated attack on the LIHKG messaging board, a website that has been essential to protest organizing and taking the public’s temperature on actions over the past months. Earlier in the morning, the website was hit by a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack “on an unprecedented scale,” according to a statement from the site. The site’s mobile app was most affected by the attack. Another message board also said it experienced a similar cyber attack Saturday morning.
In June, encrypted messaging platform Telegram, which is also popular among protesters, suffered a DDOS attack. Telegram’s chief executive said the cyberattack was traced to “IP addresses coming mostly from China” and that it “coincided in time with protests in Hong Kong.”
One 30-year-old participant, who was photographing the protest early in the day, said he felt “kind of afraid” before coming out in the afternoon but was comforted by the large number of people marching peacefully on the streets.
“People are still here, look at how brave Hong Kong is,” said the man who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Samuel. “They can’t fight against our freedoms.”
But by night, panic had gripped the city. One person who watched riot police storm the Prince Edward subway station said people were terrified by officers.
“Everyone started to scream, ‘They are coming, they are crazy,’ ” the 31-year-old said, requesting anonymity for fear of arrest. “Even a child wouldn’t trust the Hong Kong police now.”
Gerry Shih in Beijing contributed to this report.