HONG KONG — Clashes broke out between protesters and police in Hong Kong on Sunday, cutting short a rally after thousands had gathered at a park to call for electoral changes and a boycott of the Chinese Communist Party. Police fired tear gas near the park, known as Chater Garden, after some protesters attacked two plainclothes officers in a return to the violence that has roiled the Chinese territory off and on for months.
Sporting their movement’s trademark black clothing and face masks, rally participants had earlier packed into Chater Garden, located near the city’s Legislative Council building. They held up signs that read “Free Hong Kong” and waved American and British flags.
“We want real universal suffrage,” the protesters chanted. “Disband the police force, free Hong Kong!”
Hong Kong police gave approval for Sunday’s rally, but not for a march that organizers had also planned. The march didn’t happen, and the protest was curtailed by clashes after police ordered an end to the rally hours before the pre-approved finishing time.
Protesters used bricks, umbrellas and traffic barriers to barricade a road. They ran for cover after riot police appeared around Chater Garden and raised yellow warning flags, telling demonstrators that they should disperse because they were participating in an illegal assembly.
Police said some protesters began vandalizing buildings and tossing water bottles at officers, prompting them to cancel the event. Ng Lok-chun, senior superintendent of police operations in the Hong Kong Island region, told reporters that authorities had no choice but to call an end to the rally in light of the “rampant rioting.” He said the community relations officers were sent to Chater Garden as a “gesture of goodwill.”
The plainclothes officers told the organizers that the rally was being called off at about 4 p.m., according to Ventus Lau, a member of the Hong Kong Civil Assembly Team, which organized the rally. Lau asked to see an officer’s identification card, he said, but the officer initially resisted. Once he saw the officer’s badge, Lau said, he attempted to clear the park, but the altercation had drawn a crowd of angry protesters and fighting broke out.
A group of protesters chased the injured and bleeding plainclothes officers across a street, where they attempted to find safety in a building but were unable to enter because the doors were locked. Cornered, the officers were beaten by protesters with umbrellas and batons. One protester attempted to hit them with a brick. Moments later, police fired multiple rounds of tear gas, sending protesters fleeing.
Four officers were injured, including two from the Police Community Liaison Office, who suffered head wounds, according to a statement by the police.
Several young protesters were handcuffed outside the park, as officers made arrests and conducted searches into the evening. One man who refused to be searched retreated into a public restroom that was promptly surrounded by riot police.
Lau was arrested in the evening and accused of breaching the authorities’ conditions for the rally and repeatedly obstructing officers, Ng said at a news briefing.
Earlier Sunday, Lau said he believes more large-scale protests are needed for global attention to return to Hong Kong, with the protest movement losing some of its momentum in recent weeks.
“I think Hong Kong has not been the focus of the world anymore,” he said, urging other countries to launch sanctions against Hong Kong’s government if it does not allow residents to directly elect Legislative Council members this year.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997. While the framework of “one country, two systems” promises the city greater democratic rights than are afforded to the mainland, protesters say their freedoms have been steadily eroding under Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Frictions between democracy-minded Hong Kongers and the Communist Party-ruled central government in Beijing came to a head last June, when proposed extradition legislation sparked months of mass demonstrations.
The bill — which would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to mainland China to stand trial — has been withdrawn, but the protests have continued for more than seven months, centered around demands for voting rights and an independent inquiry into police conduct.
While the protests began peacefully, they increasingly descended into violence after demonstrators became frustrated with the government’s response. They feel that Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has ignored their demands and used the police to suppress them.
In response to Sunday’s rally, Hong Kong’s government released a statement that warned against any foreign involvement. Beijing has repeatedly accused foreign countries such as the U.S. of inciting riots in Hong Kong in a bid to sabotage China’s development.
In the statement, a government spokesman also recapped failed attempts to implement a promise of universal suffrage since China took control of the former British colony in 1997. It said the Hong Kong’s residents need a “clear understanding” that any chief executive elected by all citizens shall also be accountable to Beijing.
“This is the constitutional order under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle which should not be ignored,” the spokesman said. “The community needs to attain a consensus on these principles, and premised on the legal basis, to narrow differences through dialogues under a peaceful atmosphere with mutual trust.”
“Any constructive discussion on the issue of constitutional development would be difficult to commence if the aforesaid cannot be achieved,” it added.
Underpinning the protests is a deep distrust for the central government and Xi, who is widely considered China’s most authoritarian leader in decades. Some protesters have accused Lam of being “Beijing’s puppet,” a label she has rejected.
Demonstrators have routinely thrown bricks and gasoline bombs at riot police, who have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and — on rare occasions — live rounds. The months of unrest have sent the financial hub’s economy reeling, as shops have shuttered during clashes and tourists have stayed away.