HONG KONG — Hong Kong police for the first time fired live ammunition directly at protesters, injuring at least one seriously, in a new escalation against demonstrators marching against the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party rule on Tuesday.
It marked a new level of violence that shocked a city already worried about police brutality and erosion of freedoms in their semiautonomous territory — and happened on a sensitive anniversary for China under its leader Xi Jinping.
Xi in a grandiose ceremony in Beijing spoke of uniting his whole country, an aspiration that appeared to be wholly disconnected with the hundreds of thousands who defied warnings from authorities, the risk of violence and a transportation shutdown in Hong Kong to protest increasing Chinese control.
Authorities in the Chinese city tried to hold muted parallel celebrations with Beijing right after daybreak on Tuesday, but the flag-raising ceremony was under such threat that no one could be outside to watch it. As the fire-red Chinese flag was hoisted accompanied by the rousing national anthem, officials watched from inside a sprawling convention center.
By midday people were carrying Chinese flags with its stars rearranged into swastikas, and ripping celebratory banners from buildings in protests and marches that spread out over more than five Hong Kong districts.
The demonstrations descended into panic and chaos by sundown, as police used huge amounts of tear gas, a water cannon and brute force to clear away the protesters, some of whom were peaceful while others threw bricks and petrol bombs at them. Marches earlier in the day had featured families, the elderly and children.
According to a pro-democracy lawmaker and a video filmed by the Hong Kong University Students’ Union Campus TV, a protester in the Tsuen Wan neighborhood, dressed in black wearing a helmet and respirator and carrying a homemade shield, was shot by a police officer wielding a revolver. The video shows the man swinging a rod at the officer before the officer fired once, at close range.
The shot sent the protester tumbling backward over another officer, who was already on the ground.
Witnesses also saw another protester who appeared to be hit by a live round in his hand in the same neighborhood. Ken Lui, a 21-year old student at Hong Kong Baptist University and part of the Student Union’s Editorial Board, said he heard a “long bang” and ran toward it. He saw a man surrounded by police, whose hand was bleeding after it was hit by a bullet.
People “were shouting at the police, asking why they had fired at the protesters,” Lui said.
Local media outlets reported that the police used live ammunition in several parts of the city, all of them in the Kowloon and New Territories areas.
Spokespeople for the police could not confirm the incidents despite multiple calls. But group of Hong Kong police officers speaking privately over the WhatsApp messaging app had already begun discussing how to “protect and support” the officer who opened fire and urged each other not to share his photo, according to a police officer who is part of the chat group.
Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority said 31 people were injured as of 6 p.m. local time, including two men in critical condition. The authority said it had no further details on the man who was shot by police.
Smaller marches in Kowloon and New Territories had turned heated from early in the day, as police fired multiple rounds of tear gas to clear the crowd.
In the high-end central shopping area of Causeway Bay and the nearby bar-filled district of Wan Chai, a large crowd, which included families and the elderly, was allowed to march for hours along the deserted main thoroughfare toward central Hong Kong.
Just before sundown on Harcourt Road, the scene of numerous clashes over the past few months and a midway point of the march, police fired on protesters with a water cannon sending many scattering.
From a pedestrian bridge, police then fired a barrage of rubber bullets and tear gas into a group of protesters attempting to advance up the road under the cover of umbrellas. Eventually, protesters retreated from their position amid plumes of tear gas so thick it was difficult to see even a few feet.
By 7 p.m. local time, police had issued a public announcement urging residents to remain in safe areas and avoid going outdoors.
Protesters were hoping to send a clear message to Beijing on the 70th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party rule: Protect Hong Kong’s freedoms and grant it full democracy, or face continued and unending dissent designed to shame Chinese leader Xi as he faces challenges on multiple fronts.
“We have to send a message to the government and the police, that we are not afraid of them, and that going out to protest is our right,” said Fok, a 24 year-old who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his last name, as he has already been arrested for protesting. “It is time to show China they picked the wrong people to bully. This is a war, and we will win it.”
Authorities responded by closing almost two dozen shopping malls, roads and key subway stations ahead of the rallies while deploying thousands of riot officers in an attempt to thwart the demonstrations.
Police also raided several areas with “suspected connection” to the manufacturing of petrol bombs, arresting 51 people, aged 15 to 44. Police did not immediately have the number of arrests from Tuesday’s demonstrations, but were seen apprehending dozens throughout the city.
At the parade in Beijing, designed as a show of Chinese military firepower, Xi spoke about Hong Kong and promised to uphold the “One Country, Two Systems” framework that gives the territory its autonomy.
“We will maintain the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macao,” Xi said, and pledged to “unite the whole country.”
Carrie Lam, the beleaguered Hong Kong chief executive who protesters decry as a pawn of Beijing, could be seen watching the parade along with the newly-elected leader of Macao, a neighboring territory that also has some autonomy. Lam had traveled to Beijing for the anniversary with a delegation of over 200, including tycoons and pro-China lawmakers.
The protests started as a rebuke against a now-scrapped piece of legislation that would have allowed fugitives to be transferred from Hong Kong’s independent legal system to mainland China. But perceptions of government inaction and shock over police use of force have turned the movement into a full-blown rebuke of Beijing’s tightening control over the city, and revived a years-long demand for direct elections of city leaders.
Former pro-democracy lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, who helped to organize Tuesday’s march after permission was denied, said Hong Kong resembled a “semi-police state” and authorities had created a de facto “curfew under sunrise” by closing subway stations, searching vehicles and people throughout the city.
“Most of the people think it should be a day or mourning,” he said of China’s National Day. “For 70 years the Communist regime has killed people. Carrie Lam is a political puppet of China, that’s why she has refused the demands and relies on the police force.”
In Wan Chai district, the Chan family — a 55-year old mother and her two daughters aged 20 and 25 — said they walked for an hour and a half to reach the rally.
“I would like to stand and speak out for the people, to show that we aren’t going to give in to the brutality of the police,” said the 20 year-old, declining to give her full name because the demonstration was illegal. “There is too much injustice going on for us to stop now.”
Some of the people in the march wore “We are Hong Kongers” T-shirts, a rejection of Chinese identity, and held their hands up showing all five fingers for their five demands. The government has met one of these demands — the withdrawal of the extradition bill — but has declined to make further concessions, including an independent investigation into the police.
A smattering of pro-China rallies took place around the city, with people gathering in small groups to wave the Chinese flag and sing the national anthem. At the base of the city’s peak tram, a historic funicular that is a major tourist destination, Mandarin speaking visitors posed to snap smiling selfies with riot police. Hong Kong residents predominantly speak the Cantonese version of the language.
In the Sha Tin area, the large malls often attract droves of mainland tourists were quiet or shuttered. Protesters built barricades to slow police who fired tear gas. Some canisters were quickly picked up by protesters who tossed them into a nearby river.
“I can see that our freedoms are being taken away,” said one protester with the last name Lee. “When I walk out of the door I need to bring two phones in case I get stopped and search by the police.”
Word of the protester shot by the police officer spread quickly through groups of protesters still gathered at the time. Some gasped, others were in tears.
“I can’t describe it,” said Nicole, a 27-year-old consultant who was marching. “Words can’t describe the things happening in Hong Kong.”
Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.