HONG KONG — Violence returned to the streets of Hong Kong Saturday, as police fired tear gas and protesters threw stones and gasoline bombs, signaling the end of a period of relative calm in the city.
The clashes in the district of Kwun Tong, in eastern Kowloon, were a marked departure from the peaceful, if sometimes tense, gatherings that had taken place over much of the last two weeks.
Just a day earlier, anti-government demonstrators had held hands across Hong Kong, forming human chains to demand greater democracy in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
Before officers wielding batons charged at a crowd Saturday afternoon in Kwun Tong, protesters had used bamboo rods and other objects to put up barricades outside a police station. Some protesters had pulled down and dismantled lampposts that they said contained high-tech surveillance equipment.
“We don’t want to be monitored — we want human rights,” said Calvin Wong, a 24-year-old demonstrator. “Maybe people in the mainland accept this, but people in Hong Kong will not.”
In a statement, police said protesters had started fires and hurled bricks at officers, and that the use of force had been required to scatter the crowd.
Officers also fired tear gas in the Wong Tai Sin area Saturday evening; police said the action was a response to protesters obstructing roads and aiming laser pointers at officers.
Meanwhile, an employee of Britain’s consulate in Hong Kong who had been detained in mainland China for weeks has been released, the police said Saturday.
The employee, Simon Cheng, disappeared Aug. 8 during a business trip to Shenzhen, a mainland Chinese city bordering Hong Kong, according to his family and his girlfriend. The Chinese government said Wednesday that Cheng, a 28-year-old trade officer, had been held under administrative detention, without specifying what, if anything, he was alleged to have done wrong.
In a post Saturday morning on the social platform Weibo, the Public Security Bureau of Shenzhen’s Luohu District said that Cheng had confessed to unlawful activities and that he was released on Saturday after his 15-day detention ended. The statement did not say what the alleged unlawful activities were.
Cheng’s family said in a brief post on Facebook that he had safely returned to Hong Kong and had “no external injury.”
The Hong Kong demonstrations began in June over an unpopular bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. The proposal has since been shelved, but protesters are calling for it to be fully withdrawn. The movement’s demands have expanded to include other issues, such as amnesty for arrested protesters and an investigation into police violence.
Last weekend was the first in many weeks in which the demonstrations did not involve tear gas or clashes between protesters and police. Organizers estimated at least 1.7 million people marched peacefully through the city center under heavy rain last Sunday. The enormous turnout prompted Hong Kong’s top leader, Carrie Lam, to say that she intended to start listening more to the community.
On Saturday, as demonstrators assembled in Kwun Tong, Lam wrote on Facebook that the calm had made it an opportune moment for dialogue.
“I don’t expect that dialogue will be able to easily untangle this knot, stop the demonstrations or provide a solution to the problem,” she wrote. “But continuing to fight is not a way out.”
Less than two hours after Lam’s post appeared, police were firing tear gas in Kwun Tong.
In the afternoon, a group of protesters squared off with officers on the wide main road outside the police station. A smaller group of demonstrators retreated into an open-air shopping center after helmeted officers approached from several sides.
There, the protesters hurled debris and other objects, including a bottle that landed among a crowd of police officers and journalists. The bottle burst into flames upon impact, and the officers responded by firing rubber bullets and tear gas in the partly covered area.
Afterward, protesters continued throwing debris and pulled up metal drain covers to create barricades, but they dispersed after police began moving toward them.
Authorities had granted authorization for a march in Kwun Tong on Saturday, the 12th straight weekend of demonstrations. But at midday, Hong Kong’s subway operator halted train service along a stretch near the protest route, forcing those who wanted to join the rally to walk from more distant stations.
The subway operator said the move had been intended to ensure the safety of passengers and employees, but supporters of the protest movement called it a concession to pressure from Beijing. Chinese state-run news outlets criticized Hong Kong’s rail operator this past week for sending trains to take protesters home after a standoff with police at a subway station late Wednesday.
That night, after a rally at the train station in the satellite town of Yuen Long, a large crowd of demonstrators barricaded themselves inside the station as officers with riot gear approached. Protesters heckled the officers and shined laser pointers at them, and the scene grew tense.
But after an hour or so, station employees began announcing that trains were coming to take demonstrators back to the city. The protesters started moving away from the barricades and boarding the trains. There was no violence.
On Thursday, however, state news media in mainland China accused Hong Kong’s subway operator of “working hand in glove with rioters.”
“Once violence is indulged, then public safety is no longer being taken seriously,” read an article in People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper.
The high-tech lampposts that protesters targeted Saturday had been installed as part of a government program to collect more real-time data throughout the city over the next three years. In a discussion paper published this month, the government said that 50 lampposts had been put on the streets so far, including 10 in Kwun Tong’s town center.
Hong Kong officials had said over the past week that the lampposts did not have facial recognition capabilities, and that they did not store personal data.
Francis Fong, a member of a committee advising the Hong Kong government on the project, said that the lampposts automatically pixelated faces and license plates in the still images they took.
Still, Fong said, “the biggest issue is the lack of trust between the government and Hong Kong people.”