Clashes as Hong Kong marks five years since ‘Umbrella’ protests

Protesters flash their smartphone lights as they stage a rally at Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong on Friday. This weekend marks five years since the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement formed.

Renewed clashes broke out in Hong Kong Saturday night as police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse hardcore protesters hurling Molotovs and bricks after tens of thousands rallied peacefully in a nearby park.

Huge crowds had gathered to mark the fifth anniversary of the “Umbrella Movement”, the failed pro-democracy campaign that laid the groundwork for the massive protests currently engulfing the finance hub.

Tens of thousands crammed into a park outside the city’s parliament, the same site that was the epicentre of the 2014 protests.

But smaller crowds took over a main road opposite the building with groups of hardcore activists in masks throwing bricks and petrol bombs at the nearby Central Government Offices. Police responded with water cannon laced with pepper solution and tear gas volleys.

The scenes were reminiscent of the Umbrella Movement, which exploded when huge crowds came out after police fired tear gas at a student-led rally which had taken over the same highway — and was named after the ubiquitous tool people used to defend themselves from police.

Both 2014’s protests and the current demonstrations were fuelled by fears that Beijing is eroding freedoms in the semi-autonomous Chinese city and frustrations over the lack of direct elections. But the character of the protests has noticeably hardened in the intervening years.

Compared to the current strife — where street battles have erupted for 16 consecutive weeks — 2014’s protests were softer, with students completing classwork in the camps, recycling their waste, and the police largely avoiding direct conflict during the 79-day occupation of three key intersections.

This summer’s pro-democracy protests have had a distinctly more existential feel, with clashes growing in intensity and Beijing issuing increasingly shrill warnings

Many of those attending Saturday’s rally defended the use of violence by more hardcore activists and spoke wistfully about the more festive atmosphere that characterised the Umbrella Movement.

But they said Beijing’s refusal to grant democracy — coupled with the ongoing erosion of freedoms — had hardened their resolve.


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