Chaos returned to the streets of Hong Kong’s Tai Po district on Sunday afternoon, as a planned rally against a clinic for suspected Covid-19 patients turned into an anti-government march.
Police officers used pepper spray to disperse protesters blocking traffic with makeshift barricades, and appeared to make at least three arrests.
Scores of protesters, many masked and wearing black, had marched in defiance of police warnings that it was an illegal assembly, chanting anti-government slogans familiar from months of social unrest including “disband police”, “five demands, not one less”, and “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”.
When the marchers walked onto On Cheung Road and began blocking traffic, riot police moved in and used pepper spray at about 4.15pm.
Man Nim-chi, an opposition district councillor for Tai Po, said he was among those sprayed with the chemical agent despite not taking part in the protest.
“I was on a pavement with some reporters to observe the event to see if the police used excessive force against the participants,” he said. “But one officer rushed in my direction and pepper-sprayed me in the face. It is sheer abuse of power.”
Journalists covering the event were also among those pepper-sprayed.
Man said he would raise the issue with the police at a full district council meeting on March 24.
While a number of protesters remained on the pavements of On Chee Road after the clash, shouting verbal abuse at officers standing opposite them, their numbers had begun to dwindle by 5.15pm.
Tension had been building in the area since early in the day. Police were called to the Tai Po Jockey Club Clinic shortly before 6.30am after a security guard found an outer wall of the outpatient clinic had been spray-painted with the words “Oppose Pneumonia Centre”.
Police classified the case as criminal damage, though no arrests have yet been made.
In a statement later in the day, the Hospital Authority condemned the “malicious behaviour” and said they planned to step up security.
The original residents’ rally and march, planned for about 2.30pm near the clinic on Ting Kok Road, was never approved by police.
But while plans for the rally were officially abandoned, about 50 people gathered anyway, leading to warnings from police at 3pm and the eventual confrontation about an hour later.
Last month, some 200 protesters marched and blocked roads in the northern New Territories district, protesting plans to designate the clinic as one of 18 across the city that can deal with mild suspected Covid-19 cases and demanding a “full closure” of the border with mainland China.
Wu Yiu-cheong, another opposition-linked councillor on hand to observe Sunday’s protest, said the crux of the problem was a government refusal to heed public resistance to its plans for the clinic.
“The residents’ voice is clear. But the government does not listen and tries to suppress opposition views. There were calls online for a residents’ gathering outside the clinic in the afternoon, but it could not be conducted at all because police moved in very early to stop and search residents, scaring some away some residents,” he said.
Officials have said the designated clinics – targeted with violence more than once now – can help reduce the burden on public hospitals if there is a large-scale outbreak of the virus in Hong Kong.
Last Sunday, police reported an early morning petrol bomb attack on another designated clinic, the South Kwai Chung Jockey Club General Outpatient Clinic. Another designated clinic in Kowloon Bay was fired-bombed that same night after protesters staged a rally.