Hong Kong police fire tear gas as thousands rally

Sporting their movement’s trademark black clothing and face masks, rally participants packed into Chater Garden

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong police fired tear gas Sunday at a public park that was overflowing with thousands of protesters calling for electoral reforms and a boycott of the Chinese Communist Party.

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Sporting their movement’s trademark black clothing and face masks, rally participants packed into Chater Garden, not far from the Chinese territory'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!"

Participants wave British and U.S. flags during a rally demanding electoral democracy and call for boycott of the Chinese Communist Party and all businesses seen to support it in Hong Kong, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

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.

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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The bill — which would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to mainland China to stand trial — has since been withdrawn, but protests have continued for more than seven months, centered around demands for voting rights and an independent inquiry into police conduct.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.

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In response to Sunday’s rally, Hong Kong’s government released a statement outlining the “universal suffrage of ‘one person, one vote’ as an ultimate aim” enshrined in the city’s de facto constitution, known as the Basic Law. This step must be implemented in line with “gradual and orderly progress,” the statement said.

“The Government understands the aspiration of the community for universal suffrage,” it added. “To achieve this aim, the community needs to have a clear understanding that apart from being accountable to (Hong Kong), the CE (Chief Executive) selected by universal suffrage is appointed by the Central People’s Government and shall also be accountable to the CPG.”

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.

Riot police perform body search on a man ahead of a rally, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Hong Kong police gave approval for Sunday's rally, but not for a march that organizers were also planning.

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.

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Two officers were bleeding from the head after a group of “rioters” attacked them with wooden sticks, police said in a statement, adding that some also lobbed water bottles and other objects at law enforcement. Others threw paint bombs at buildings in the Central business district, according to police.

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Associated Press writer Yanan Wang in Beijing and photographer Ng Han Guan in Hong Kong contributed to this report.