Hong Kong began 2020 with more protests as crowds marched through downtown districts on New Year’s Day to call for greater political freedom.
Local media reported that the city’s Victoria Park—the traditional staging ground for mass protests—began to fill up from the early afternoon. Marchers chanted “Liberate Hong Kong” and carried flags reading “Revolution Now.”
Live news streams showed the premises of some mainland Chinese owned business being vandalized and smashed. A branch of HSBC was also vandalized. The bank has been a target since it closed an account set up to provide assistance to protesters after finding that it “was not being used for its stated purpose.”
Scores of trade unions set up recruiting booths along the march route in a bid to draw members from Hong Kong’s newly politicized youth. Many of the unions are new, having been set up to counteract the pro-Beijing labor federations that have long dominated the sector.
Wednesday’s procession came in the wake of a restive New Year’s Eve that saw hundreds protesters form human chains and others barricade Nathan Road—the Kowloon peninsula’s principal thoroughfare—sparking clashes with police. A train carriage was set on fire by masked radicals in the early hours of Wednesday, but nobody was injured. Radicals also hurled petrol bombs into a train depot.
The traditional New Year’s Eve fireworks at Victoria Harbour, which normally draw large crowds, were canceled after police voiced fears for public safety.
In a New Year message, Hong Kong’s top official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, said that the semi-autonomous territory “experienced challenges not seen before” during many months of unrest and that “we all want to see an end to this predicament.”
She pledged to “listen humbly to find a way out,” and added: “We must handle the problems at hand and acknowledge the shortcomings in our systems, as well as the deep-rooted problems and conflicts that have been accumulating for many years.”
Meanwhile, a group of 38 political figures from several countries—including the recently retired speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow and former U.K. foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind—wrote to Lam, urging her to set up a probe into the Hong Kong police force’s handling of the unrest, which opponents say has been heavy handed.
The group said: “Should you continue to reject this idea, we call on the international community to establish an international, independent inquiry mechanism.”
The Hong Kong government has maintained that the territory’s Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) must be allowed to complete its report on the protests before another inquiry is considered, but critics—including a panel of overseas experts—say that it cannot do its work because it lacks the power to subpoena witnesses and documents.
The Hong Kong protests, now in their seventh month, originated in popular opposition to plans to allow for fugitives to be extradited to mainland China for the first time. Detractors feared that Beijing would use the provision to round up dissidents in the enclave.
The early protests have since escalated into an increasingly violent struggle against the local administration, with protesters demanding a fully elected legislature and popularly elected leader for the former British possession, retroceded to China in 1997 after 156 years of colonial rule.
Nearly 6,500 people have been arrested since the start of the unrest.