A huge crowd gathered in Hong Kong on Wednesday for an annual New Year’s Day protest march as the months-long pro-democracy movement extended into 2020.
The massive rally followed clashes between police and protesters in a densely populated shopping district on New Year’s Eve.
Police also used tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons to break up groups of demonstrators who blocked traffic and lit fires in the street in the working-class district of Mong Kok.
Hong Kong toned down its New Year celebrations amid the protests, which began in June and have dealt severe blows to the city’s retail, tourism and nightlife sectors.
Eric Lai, the vice convener of march organiser the Civil Human Rights Front, said he hoped to avoid a recurrence of the previous night’s violence.
“I really hope that this will be a peaceful protest,” he said. “We hope that the police can facilitate us, rather than provoking us, and to fire tear gas and water cannon at us.”
Such marches have often descended into violence between hardcore, black-clad protesters and police.
Both sides have been accused of provoking clashes, and nearly 6,500 protesters as young as 12 have been arrested in scores of incidents on streets, in shopping malls and on college campuses.
Recent protests have drawn participants from across Hong Kong society, sometimes numbering more than a million and packing the central area from Victoria Park to the government office complex a short distance away.
Many people are concerned about an erosion of the former British colony’s civil liberties it was promised after being handed over to Chinese rule in 1997, along with a shortage of well-paid jobs and a yawning divide between the city’s ruling class and those merely getting by amid soaring housing costs.
This year’s event appeared to be significantly larger than in past years, although estimates of the numbers of participants often vary widely between organisers and police.
Riot police were positioned in side streets along the march route, but there were no immediate reports of clashes.
Tuesday night’s police actions were focused on the more industrial and working-class districts on the city’s Kowloon side where protesters were watching a New Year light show.
The protests began in June over proposed legislation that could have allowed residents to be extradited to China where they could face possible torture and unfair trials.
The legislation was later withdrawn, but not before the protests expanded to wider calls for reforms in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
On Tuesday, protesters also gathered at the Prince Edward subway station, where four months ago police had rushed in, beating and tear-gassing demonstrators who had no way to escape.
That incident is among many cited by demonstrators as cases of police abuse for which no-one has been held accountable.
In her New Year address, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the months of protests had brought “sadness, anxiety, disappointment and even rage”, and she vowed to tackle underlying social and economic problems in the coming year.
She said she would “listen humbly” to help bring an end to the protests but also reinforced the importance of the “one country, two systems” framework under which China rules Hong Kong and which brooks no challenge to the ruling Communist Party’s ultimate authority.
In his own New Year address, Chinese President Xi Jinping referred to the protests, saying: “Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability is the wish of Hong Kong compatriots and the expectation for the people of the motherland.”