HONG KONG - In a dramatic escalation of force against protesters, Hong Kong police for the first time fired live ammunition directly at demonstrators Tuesday during street clashes as China celebrated the 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule. At least one protester was seriously wounded.

The live fire brought a new level of violence in a city already on edge over alleged police brutality and an erosion of freedoms - all unfolding on a highly sensitive date for China under its leader, Xi Jinping, as he presided over grand military processions in Beijing.

The clashes are likely to provoke a fresh wave of anger on the streets as Hong Kong's unrest spills into its fifth month. Hong Kong leaders, meanwhile, face a possible reckoning over whether to keep ramping up their tactics as protests show no sign of easing and amid a severe breakdown in trust between residents and police.

In Beijing, Xi used the grandiose anniversary ceremony to boast of China's military and economy power - and its unity.

"Forging ahead, we must remain committed to the strategy of peaceful reunification and 'One Country, Two Systems.' We will maintain the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macao," Xi said, referring to the principle that the former European colonies have a degree of autonomy from Beijing.

But Xi's message faced a defiant counterpoint in Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of protesters - ignoring warnings from authorities - sought to reinforce their stance against Beijing: protect Hong Kong's freedoms and grant it full democracy, or face continued and unending dissent designed to shame Xi as he faces challenges on multiple fronts.

"We have to send a message to the government and the police, that we are not afraid of them, and that going out to protest is our right," said Fok, a 24-year-old who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his last name, as he has already been arrested for protesting. "It is time to show China they picked the wrong people to bully. This is a war, and we will win it."

Right after daybreak on Tuesday, the fire-red Chinese flag was hoisted accompanied by the rousing national anthem in Hong Kong. But because of safety threats, officials watched from inside a convention center. A planned fireworks display was also canceled.

By midday, protesters were carrying Chinese flags with its stars rearranged into swastikas, and ripping celebratory banners from buildings in protests and marches that spread out over more than five Hong Kong districts. Half of the subway network was closed by night, and protests had spread to more than a dozen areas.

The demonstrations descended into panic and chaos before sundown. Police used huge amounts of tear gas, water cannons filled with stinging blue dye and baton charges to clear away the protesters, some of whom were peaceful while others threw bricks and petrol bombs. Marches earlier in the day had featured families, the elderly and children.

According to a pro-democracy lawmaker and a video filmed by the Hong Kong University Students' Union Campus TV, a protester in the Tsuen Wan neighborhood who was dressed in black, wearing a helmet and respirator, and carrying a homemade shield was shot by a police officer wielding a revolver. The video shows the man swinging a rod at the officer before the officer fired once, at close range.

The shot sent the protester tumbling backward over another officer, who was already on the ground.

Ken Lui, a 21-year-old student at Hong Kong Baptist University and part of the Students' Union Editorial Board, was among those who saw the man, crying out in pain and bleeding from the chest.

People "were shouting at the police, asking why they had fired at the protesters," Lui said.

Witnesses also saw another protester who appeared to be hit by a live round in his hand in the same neighborhood.

Local media outlets reported that the police used live ammunition in several parts of the city, all of them in the Kowloon and New Territories areas.

A spokeswoman for the police said an officer shot an attacker who was posing a "huge safety threat" to protect the officer himself and his colleagues. The spokeswoman identified the injured man as an 18-year-old and said he was shot in the left side of his chest.

A group of Hong Kong police officers speaking privately over the WhatsApp messaging service had already begun discussing how to "protect and support" the officer who opened fire and urged one another not to share his photo, according to a police officer who is part of the chat group.

Hong Kong's Hospital Authority said at least 51 people were injured, including two men who were in a critical condition. The authority said it had no further details on the man who was shot by police.

On Harcourt Road, the scene of numerous clashes over the past months, protesters' appetite for risk were on full display. From a pedestrian bridge, riot police fired a barrage of rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd - who ignored them and continued advancing up a steep escalator under the cover of umbrellas. Protesters only retreated when tear gas was so thick, it was difficult to see beyond a few feet.

Carrie Lam, the beleaguered Hong Kong chief executive who protesters decry as a pawn of Beijing, was not in the city, but instead attending the parade in the Chinese capital. Lam had traveled to Beijing for the anniversary with a delegation of more than 200, including business tycoons and pro-China lawmakers.

The protests started in June as a rebuke against a now-scrapped piece of legislation that would have allowed fugitives to be transferred from Hong Kong's independent legal system to mainland China. But perceptions of government inaction and shock over police use of force have turned the movement into a full-blown rebuke of Beijing's tightening control over the city, and revived a years-long demand for direct elections of city leaders.

Former pro-democracy lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, who helped to organize Tuesday's march after permission was denied, said Hong Kong resembled a "semi-police state," and authorities had created a de facto "curfew under sunrise" by closing subway stations and searching vehicles and people throughout the city.

"Most of the people think it should be a day of mourning," he said of China's National Day. "For 70 years, the Communist regime has killed people. Carrie Lam is a political puppet of China; that's why she has refused the demands and relies on the police force."

Many protesters heeded a call put out online to tuck in their shirts, an effort to root out undercover police who protesters believe leave their shirts untucked to cover their firearms.

Some of the people in the march wore "We are Hong Kongers" T-shirts, a rejection of Chinese identity, and held their hands up showing all five fingers for their five demands. The government has met one of these demands - the withdrawal of the extradition bill - but has declined to make further concessions, including an independent investigation into the police.

Many also focused their efforts on mocking and otherwise defacing portraits of Xi, depicting him as the cartoon character Winnie the Pooh and making mock offerings to him as though he was a dead spirit needing to be appeased. Graffiti used expletives to refer to Xi, China and the Communist Party.

A handful of pro-China rallies took place around the city, with people gathering in small groups to wave the Chinese flag and sing the national anthem. At the base of the city's peak tram, a historic funicular that is a major tourist destination, Mandarin-speaking visitors posed to snap smiling selfies with riot police. Hong Kong residents predominantly speak the Cantonese version of the language.

In the Sha Tin area, the large malls that often attract droves of mainland tourists were quiet or shuttered. Protesters built barricades to slow police who fired tear gas. Some canisters were quickly picked up by protesters, who tossed them into a nearby river.

"I can see that our freedoms are being taken away," said one protester with the last name Lee. "When I walk out of the door, I need to bring two phones in case I get stopped and searched by the police."

Word of the protester shot by the police officer spread quickly through groups of protesters still gathered at the time. Some gasped, and others were in tears.

"I can't describe it," said Nicole, a 27-year-old consultant who was marching. "Words can't describe the things happening in Hong Kong."

Graffiti remained sprawled across much of the city, including some quoting the farewell speech of Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong: "Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise - and that is the unshakable destiny."

Friday, October 18, 2019
Thursday, October 17, 2019