HONG KONG — Another massive march in Hong Kong, this time held in an enclave frequented by Chinese tourists and connected by high-speed railway to the mainland, turned chaotic Sunday night after a smaller group of protesters occupied a major shopping road and was forcibly cleared by police.
The protesters, hoping to take their grievances against Beijing directly to the Chinese people, tried to engage with visitors from the mainland. Chanting “Free Hong Kong!” they marched in Tsim Sha Tsui, a tourist-heavy, mall-dotted neighborhood, toward a railway terminus that connects the semiautonomous territory to mainland China.
Organizers estimated turnout at 230,000 people; police put the crowd at its peak at around 56,000. But it was larger than expected, overflowing into roads that were not approved for the march. By night, a small crowd occupied streets in the area in defiance of riot police — prompting officers to tackle and beat some with batons. At least three people were arrested, local media reported.
The scenes were the latest in an escalating crisis that has gripped Hong Kong for more than a month, with determined protesters on one side and the Beijing-backed government and police on the other.
The protesters marched to the West Kowloon station, which opened in September and is subject to Chinese laws. It connects to China’s snaking, billion-dollar high-speed rail network, with stops in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Beijing and other cities.
Along their route, volunteers handed out posters advertising the upheaval in the city over the past few weeks, sparked by a now-
suspended bill that would allow extraditions to the mainland. They designed leaflets in the simplified Chinese characters widely used on the mainland and shouted the purpose of their march over loudspeakers in Mandarin, the official language of China, rather than the Cantonese of Hong Kong. Some used Apple’s AirDrop service to share photos and demands with nearby Apple devices.
“Our idea is to spread messages to travelers and tourists, especially those from the mainland,” said Yoanna, a 17-year-old student who would not give her last name for fear of retribution. “We know that mainlanders will support us, but maybe they can’t get information on what is going on.”
News in China has been highly censored since massive student-led pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Internet users in China who have searched for information about the Hong Kong protests have found their queries blocked.
State media has instead published stories, often completely false, that show widespread support in Hong Kong for mainland China.
Sustained protests have rocked the territory for more than a month. Chief Executive Carrie Lam paused the extradition proposal after the first week of marches but has declined to fully withdraw it or to step down, as protesters demand.
The marches have ballooned to include other demands, such as the release of jailed protesters and an investigation into police actions. They are shaping up to be a cohesive movement against Beijing’s control over the territory.
In the clearest demonstration yet against Beijing’s authority and the legitimacy of the Hong Kong government, a group of protesters stormed and briefly occupied the Hong Kong legislature last week, on the 22nd anniversary of the territory’s handover from the British to China.
Sunday’s march marked a new escalation, the first time demonstrators have taken their message so close to the mainland’s territory and people. Protesters sang the Chinese national anthem, coaxing mainland tourists to join in. Others shouted “No rioters, only tyranny!” at passersby — a reference to the Hong Kong government and mainland authorities labeling the occupation of the legislature as a violent, extreme act.
Those opposed to the extradition bill say it would break a firewall separating Hong Kong’s legal system from the Chinese one. They fear that the Chinese Communist Party will use the provisions to target people for political reasons.
“It is very important for us to explain to mainlanders what the consequences of this law are, even if they don’t agree,” Yoanna said.
Chinese tourists were either muted or critical in response. Some took the fliers and posters given out by the demonstrators, but others avoided them.
One tourist interviewed by a Hong Kong television news network called the situation “chaos.”
“I’m afraid and don’t want to travel to Hong Kong anymore,” the woman, who identified herself as Mrs. Chen from Guangdong province, told i-Cable News. “I even brought my kid here!”
Part of the Sunday march was permitted by police, but authorities erected water-filled barricades around the railway station. They restricted access to the station’s interior to those who had tickets to travel. MTR, which runs the city’s subway, restricted underground entrances to the station to travelers and implemented crowd-control measures.
The march swelled beyond organizers’ initial estimate of a few thousand, forcing police to open roads and push protesters into streets not authorized for the rally. By 10:30 p.m., protesters had occupied Nathan Road — an iconic thoroughfare lined with malls and hotels — while riot police stood ready to clear them forcibly. One pro-democracy legislator, Roy Kwong, pleaded with police and protesters, urging them to “keep calm and reason with each other.”
Police said the public “should express their views in a peaceful and orderly manner.” At night, some officers were seen on video shouting at protesters and hauling them into police vehicles.
Some visitors from China picking up the posters appeared confused. They asked why some streets were blocked and heavily policed.
The signs, which praised the territory’s freedoms and rights, cut to the heart of what separates Hong Kong — a territory that was promised significant autonomy, including its own government, press, immigration system and legal system — from the mainland.
“People seem scared to ask us more,” said Hin Lee, 30, who was in the crowd with friends. “We mainly want to pass along information. Hong Kong is the only place in China with free information, and so it is our responsibility to not only let the world know what is happening, but let mainlanders know.”
Chinese Internet users say their government is deleting references to and photos of Hong Kong protests on apps such as WeChat and Weibo. As a result, users have started using more oblique references, such as the Cantonese pop song “Queen’s Road East,” which makes reference to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China.
That song has since been pulled from music streaming services in China.
“Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies,” a song by Hong Kong rock band Beyond that became an unofficial anthem of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, also appeared to have been removed.
Some analysts and those in the Hong Kong government fear these weeks of provocation have incensed Beijing and will push it to keep the territory on a tighter leash.
But many see sustained pressure on their own government and Beijing authorities as the only choice.
“The general consensus at this point is that we are desperate. We don’t know if anything we do will help, but we have to keep coming out and keep trying new things,” Lee said. “This is our last stand for Hong Kong.”
Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.