A Hong Kong rally in support of China’s Uygur population descended into chaos on Sunday as protesters clashed with riot police, and one officer pointed his gun at them after coming under attack but no live round was fired.
Trouble broke out shortly after 5pm when protesters took down the Chinese national flag from a pole in Edinburgh Place, Central.
Several riot police officers arrived to look for the flag and then found themselves outnumbered and surrounded by protesters, who accused them of disrupting their rally, which the force had approved.
After a police officer retrieved the flag, a protester pushed an officer from behind and a chase ensued.
Amid the chaos, police subdued two men. Plastic water bottles and other objects were then hurled at the officers, who hit back with batons and pepper spray.
A protester kicked an officer from behind, sending him sprawling across the ground. He got back up, drew his gun and pointed it at protesters but did not open fire.
Several minutes later, reinforcements of a few dozen officers arrived. Police also briefly raised a black flag warning of tear gas but did not use the crowd-control agent.
A foreign man was reportedly hit on the leg by a rubber bullet.
After the mayhem died down, more than 10 people, most of them dressed in black, were told to stand facing a wall as police searched their bags.
A police officer said through a loudspeaker that Sunday was the winter solstice – an important day in Chinese culture that marks the changing of the seasons – and that he hoped protesters could just go home to be with their families.
In a statement, police said they used minimum force to disperse the crowd after projectiles were hurled at officers and attempts were made to snatch an arrestee. The force condemned the acts, saying they had severely jeopardised the personal safety of those at the scene and public order.
Earlier, hundreds of people joined a peaceful rally against what they called a human rights crackdown by Beijing on the Uygurs in Xinjiang.
UN experts and activists say that at least 1 million ethnic Uygurs and other Muslims are held in detention centres in Xinjiang. China describes the facilities as training centres helping to stamp out extremism and give people new skills.
Sunday’s rally, which took place about 200 metres from the People’s Liberation Army headquarters, was organised by a little-known group called “Students Power”.
Police officers used pepper spray as they were hit with water bottles thrown by protesters at a rally in Central.
Video: SCMP/Phila Siu pic.twitter.com/RUwoK3ukw0
— SCMP Hong Kong (@SCMPHongKong) December 22, 2019
In a declaration that was read out at the rally, the group said the Chinese government had been torturing the Uygurs. “We Hongkongers cannot stay silent. We must not give up. We need to shine the light of freedom into China,” it said.
Some protesters waved flags supporting Hong Kong independence. Others had British and US flags. Some chanted that independence was the only way out for Hong Kong.
Among the speakers was Andy Chan Ho-tin, founder of the banned pro-independence Hong Kong National Party. He said the city should have its own constitution, with freedom, equality and dignity being the core values.
Rally-goer Matthew Tam, 24, was there because he did not want Hong Kong to become the next Xinjiang. “We need to stand united in the face of suppression from the Chinese government,” he said.
In a statement, the government said it strongly condemned some rally participants for advocating Hong Kong independence, as well as the removal of the national flag from the pole and placing it on the ground.
Meanwhile, a two-hour rally planned for Monday night in Edinburgh Place obtained a letter of no objection from police, according to one of the organisers, Fergus Leung Fong-wai, an incoming Central and Western district councillor.
The rally is to protest against the police’s move to crack down on Spark Alliance, a crowdfunding platform to support anti-government protesters.
Leung said they had expected a turnout of about 3,000 but Sunday’s incident could encourage more people to show up.
Police suspect the funds raised were used for personal gain and other illegal activities.
Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung
More from South China Morning Post:
- Nearly a fifth of Hong Kong voters say they support violent actions by protesters, such as attacking opponents or hurling petrol bombs and bricks
- Man who fired live round at police believed to be part of earlier case in which officers seized bombs and firearms linked to Hong Kong protests