HONG KONG—Protesters opposed to mainland China’s growing influence on Hong Kong gathered in one of the semiautonomous city’s densest districts, setting up the potential for confrontations with a police force under pressure to contain weeks of tear-gas-soaked demonstrations.
Adding to the tension, the scene of Saturday’s protest is Mong Kok, where violent clashes unfolded during pro-democracy protests in 2014 and 2016. Ahead of Saturday’s rally, replacement filters for the shop masks that demonstrators use against tear gas were sold out at many local stores, a sign of expected clashes with police, some demonstrators said.
Many shops in the neighborhood were closed Saturday. A bakery owner whose store is across the street from the march’s starting point, said she would close early out of fear the protests might turn violent.
Simon and Jenny Chow, who run a grocery store across the street from the starting point, said someone had paid them to provide water and sports drinks for protesters. A sign written in a mix of Chinese and English read, “Please help yourself. HKers add oil,” a common Cantonese expression of encouragement.
In their ninth weekend, Hong Kong’s anti-Beijing protest movement has appeared to gain momentum even as police use more aggressive tactics to bring it to heel. After tense confrontations last weekend, police arrested dozens and took what many here viewed as a hard-line step by charging them with crimes that carry up to 10-year prison terms.
All the same, the anger powering the protests appeared to spread to new sectors of Hong Kong society. Late Friday, thousands of civil servants held a rare protest against their own government’s handling of the unrest. More protests are set for Sunday, and demonstrators have called for a general strike on Monday.
The spark for the protests was a proposed extradition law that would make it easier for Beijing to prosecute residents under mainland China’s more opaque legal system. Many in Hong Kong see that as undermining a way of life rooted in democratic values such as rule of law and freedom of expression.
The movement was further inflamed by allegations of excessive force by police and an ugly incident where dozens of men, some with ties to organized crime, beat protesters and bystanders bloody in a subway station.
“The situation is really precarious,” said Albert Ho, a Hong Kong human-rights lawyer who is defending several protesters arrested in recent demonstrations. “Right now there are a lot of young people out there who feel they have nothing to lose, who feel they are looking at the end of rule of law, of a legal system, of a culture.”
Police had at first denied a permit for the march, restricting it to a stationary rally. On Friday, they approved a march through less congested parts of Mong Kok.
Adding to a sense of unease, there is almost no sign that a political resolution to the unrest will materialize soon. The city’s Beijing-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam has put the extradition law on hold, a move rejected as a half measure. Demonstrators want the measure withdrawn completely, as well as an inquiry into police handling of the unrest and an overhaul of the voting system. Mrs. Lam has decried violence and vowed to remain in her post.
Looming over the frayed politics is a string of ominous signals from Beijing.
Earlier in the week, the Chinese government office responsible for Hong Kong affairs declared that a return to law and order had become Hong Kong’s “most pressing priority.”
China’s Foreign Ministry blamed the U.S. and the West for fomenting the protests. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the claims “ludicrous.”
Chinese officials have said its military, which has a garrison in Hong Kong, could restore order if called upon by Hong Kong’s leadership.
This week, the military released a propaganda video depicting Chinese soldiers practicing to do just that. Against a dramatic soundtrack, soldiers use riot shields, rifles and even tanks to engage with rock-throwing crowds. The video begins with military-rifle-wielding soldiers running by what appears to be a smashed-up Hong Kong taxi. In the next scene, the soldiers fire into smoke.
While analysts say it is extremely unlikely that China’s military would be called into the streets soon, the statements and video have elevated local unease.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China in 1997 but operates under a Western-based legal system and partial democracy—an arrangement called “one country, two systems.” Chinese leader Xi Jinping, however, delivered a harsh speech in 2017 declaring that any overt challenges to China’s authority could undermine the foundation of that system.
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