Hong Kong’s nine-week-long protest movement reached a new apex today, as the city came to a near standstill, with protesters paralyzing public transportation on top of a general strike.
The city’s leader, Carrie Lam, also met with members of the media for the first time in two weeks. She refused to offer solutions to restore calm to Hong Kong or make further concessions to protesters. In addition to calling for the full withdrawal of an extradition bill, the protesters now want the government to set up an independent commission to investigate police actions, among other demands. Instead, Lam vowed to be more communicative with the public, though she explained that she was hidden from public view in the past two weeks because she feared protesters would take radical actions if her whereabouts were announced.
As part of a new communication strategy, Lam said that the police would hold a press conference every day. In her comments, however, she did not address the issue of rapidly worsening relations between police and protesters (as well as ordinary citizens), and merely repeated the line that the government stands behind the police to maintain safety and order.
In the first of such press conferences, Hong Kong police today quantified some aspects of their operations since the protests kicked off on June 9. They said they’ve fired 1,000 rounds of tear gas, 160 rounds of rubber bullets, and 150 rounds of sponge bullets. In addition, police have arrested 420 people. That excludes the 82 arrested today, as protesters around the city occupied roads and besieged police stations, pelting them with objects such as bricks and stones.
In comparison, during the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, police fired 87 rounds of tear gas during the two-month-long occupation of three districts.
Those actions were preceded by a number of peaceful, planned sit-ins at multiple locations around Hong Kong, where people who were taking part in the general strike could gather.
Police have stepped up their use of tear gas in recent days, firing large numbers of rounds in heavily residential areas to disperse protesters. Those actions were often met with irate reactions from people who say that the indiscriminate use of tear gas affected young children and the elderly playing no part in the protests. Raucous scenes of residents in neighborhoods turning out en masse to heckle police away have become commonplace: they often chant words at them such as “corrupt cops” and “triads,” a reference to the attacks in the Yuen Long suburb earlier this month by hundreds of white-clad thugs where police were notably absent, fueling accusations that the police are colluding with organized crime. The police have denied such accusations.
Police defended their extensive use of tear gas, saying it was restrained and warnings were given ahead of time. The canister count is only likely to increase, as police fired many rounds of tear gas to quell protests today in five districts spread across the city.