Police repeatedly fired tear gas after tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators brought parts of central Hong Kong to a standstill Sunday in protest at Beijing’s refusal to grant the city unfettered democracy.
The rare chaotic scenes — in which crowds fought running battles with riot police in the streets of the international financial hub — forced protest leaders to warn supporters to “retreat and save their lives” if rubber bullets were fired.
Protesters screamed “Shame!” at officers, many in gas masks and riot gear, as they tried to shield themselves from the clouds of gas which was last used in Hong Kong in 2005.
It marked a dramatic escalation of protests in the city, which rarely sees such violence, after a tense week of largely contained student-led demonstrations exploded into mass angry street protests.
Many officers had rubber bullet rifles slung over their shoulders, prompting protest leaders to call on demonstrators to pull back if police used them of they felt their lives were threatened.
“This is a matter of life or death. If their lives are threatened they should retreat and save their lives,” said professor Chan Kin-man, a co-founder of the Occupy Central group which threw its weight behind the protest on Sunday.
Around three thousand demonstrators blocked a major road, bringing traffic to a standstill and opening up a second significant flashpoint in the key financial hub.
A dozen police looked on helplessly as the demonstrators took over Nathan Road, chanting slogans and wrapping their eyes in clingfilm to protect themselves in the event of pepper spray being deployed, an AFP reporter said.
Beijing “firmly opposes all illegal activities that could undermine rule of law and jeopardise ‘social tranquility’ and it offers its strong backing” to the Hong Kong government, a spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau affairs office was quoted by the Xinhua news agency as saying.
In a statement the Hong Kong government said it had “no intention to seek help from the PLA”.