Protesters face riot police during clashes in Hong Kong. Thomas Peter/Reuters
Police in Hong Kong used pepper spray and batons against anti-government protesters who seized highways early Monday ahead of what is expected to be a huge pro-democracy rally on the anniversary of the city's handover to China.
The international financial hub has been shaken by historic demonstrations in the past three weeks, driven by demands for the withdrawal of a bill that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.
Tensions spiked once more in the semi-autonomous city on Monday morning after small groups of mainly young, masked protesters seized three key thoroughfares, deploying metal and plastic barriers to block the way.
Riot police with helmets and shields faced off against protesters in the Admiralty and Wanchai districts of the city.
Shortly before a flag-raising ceremony to mark the handover, police swooped on protesters who had blockaded one street. At least one woman was seen bleeding from a head wound after the clashes as police made multiple arrests.
Some protesters hurled eggs at police, who later said 13 officers were also sent to hospital after being doused in an "unknown liquid".
"This isn't what we want, the government forced us to express (our views) this way.
The rallies reflect growing fears that China is stamping down on the city's freedoms and culture with the help of the finance hub's pro-Beijing leaders.
Benny, a 20-year-old student who gave only one name, said protesters had been prodded into action by the obduracy of the city's pro-Beijing appointed leadership.
"This isn't what we want, the government forced us to express (our views) this way," he told AFP.
Although Hong Kong was returned from British to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, it is still administered separately under an arrangement known as "one country, two systems".
The city enjoys rights and liberties unseen on the autocratic mainland, but many residents fear Beijing is already reneging on that deal.
Pro-democracy activists have organised a march every handover anniversary, calling for greater democratic freedoms — such as the right to elect the city's leader.
They have mustered large crowds in recent years — including a two-month occupation in 2014 — but have failed to win any concessions from Beijing.
This year's rally is framed by the unprecedented anti-government protests of the past three weeks that have drawn millions, with the public angry over police using tear gas and rubber bullets to clear crowds.
The spark for the current wave of protests was an attempt by chief executive Carrie Lam to pass the Beijing-backed extradition law, which she has now postponed following the public backlash.
The demonstrations have since morphed into a wider movement against Lam's administration and Beijing.
Lam — who has kept out of the public eye since her climbdown and has record low approval ratings — attended a flag-raising ceremony early Monday, marking the moment the city returned to Chinese ownership 22 years ago.
But she and other dignitaries observed from inside due to "inclement weather" — the first time in the ceremony's history.
Her speech stuck to the conciliatory tone she has used in recent weeks.
"What happened in recent months has caused conflicts and disputes between the government and residents," Lam said. "It has made me fully understand that as a politician, I need to be aware and accurately grasp the feelings of the people."
'Freedoms are shrinking'
Demonstrators gathered outside the venue — which was ringed by police — and jeered as a helicopter flying both the Hong Kong and Chinese flags flew by.
Protesters are demanding Lam shelves the extradition bill and for police drop any charges against demonstrators arrested in recent weeks.
"Whatever happens we won't lose heart. Resistance is not a matter of a day or a week, it is long term.
Activists, who are mainly young students, have vowed to keep up their civil disobedience campaign.
"Whatever happens we won't lose heart," Jason Chan, a 22-year-old accountant added. "Resistance is not a matter of a day or a week, it is long term."
The pro-democracy rally is scheduled to take place on Monday afternoon, following the same route the two mass rallies last month took — from a park to the city's legislature.
Permission for a separate pro-Beijing rally has been granted to start at the same time in the same park — raising fears of confrontations.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of pro-establishment protesters rallied in support of Hong Kong's police.
Many waved Chinese flags and hurled insults at anti-government demonstrators camped nearby, highlighting the deep ideological fissures now dividing the finance hub.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam in Beijing on Monday, saying the Asian financial hub was not yet out of the “dilemma” facing the city’s economy after months of sometimes violent protests.
Riot police lined up a few hundred meters (yards) away and shot several volleys of tear gas at the protesters, who sheltered behind a wall of umbrellas across an entire street.
Police have banned the march in the city's Kowloon district, citing concerns over public safety, and a court on Saturday said the destination of the march - the main railway interchange with mainland China - could be attacked and vandalised.
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