HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hundreds of mask-wearing pro-democracy protesters marched through Hong Kong’s central business district at lunchtime on Friday, occupying a main thoroughfare and disrupting traffic as the city braced for another weekend of turmoil.
Chanting calls for their core demands and denouncing what they see as police brutality, the crowd peacefully occupied streets in the financial district, home to some of the world’s most expensive real estate, before dispersing.
Hong Kong’s metro operator had opened all stations in the morning for the first time in a week ahead of another round of anti-government protests, while the city’s legislature began its first session since protesters stormed the building in July.
Pro-establishment and democratic lawmakers shouted at each other before the beginning of the session, underscoring the tension and divisions in Hong Kong after four months of often violent pro-democracy protests.
Some lawmakers wore black masks as they sat in the chamber, while others carried placards reading: “Police brutality still exists, how can we have a meeting?”
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam banned the wearing of face masks a week ago, invoking colonial-era emergency powers.
The protests have plunged the city, an Asian financial hub, into its worst crisis since it returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, posing the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
What began as opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill has evolved into a pro-democracy movement fanned by fears that China is stifling Hong Kong’s freedoms, which were guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula introduced with the 1997 handover.
China denies the accusations and says foreign countries, including Britain and the United States, are fomenting unrest.
Metro operator MTR Corp, whose network carries about 5 million passengers a day, said all lines would shut at 10 p.m. (1400 GMT) on Friday, more than 2 hours earlier than usual so more repairs could be carried out after protesters torched or trashed stations across the city last weekend.
Many stores and businesses have had to shut early due to metro closures, putting another burden on the city’s faltering economy as it faces its first recession in a decade.
Protesters have targeted the MTR because it has been blamed for closing stations at the government’s behest to contain demonstrations.
The normally efficient system shut down completely last Friday following arson attacks and has operated only partially since then.
Lam introduced the emergency laws, including a ban on face masks, in an effort to quell unrest. But the mask ban sparked some of the worst violence since protests started, with many residents fearing the emergency laws may be expanded, further eroding civil liberties.
The government said on Thursday that it would not bring in any other emergency measures.
Hong Kong has been relatively calm for a few days after a street march by tens of thousands of people last Sunday spiralled into a night of violent clashes between police and protesters.
Several demonstrations are planned across the city on Friday and through the weekend.
SWIMMING RACE CALLED OFF
Several major conferences and other events have been called off because of the protests, with the latest being an annual swimming race in the city’s famed harbour.
Property developer New World Development Company Limited 0017.HK said it was cancelling the Oct. 27 competition because of the "social situation".
The protest movement still appears to have a broad base of support despite the violence and vandalism carried out by small groups of front-line protesters.
Residents, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, are calling for the protection of civil liberties. Many young people are also angry about the city’s hugely expensive property, widening inequality and poor job prospects.
Ninety people have been arrested for anti-mask law violations in the past week, pushing the total number of arrests since June to over 2,300, police said on Friday.
Many of those arrested are below the age of 16, authorities said.
On Oct. 16, Lam is due to deliver the city’s annual policy address, which traditionally contains sweeteners and support for business and investment. She has said that due to the unrest her address will not be as “elaborate” or “comprehensive” as normal.
Pro-democracy lawmakers on Friday reiterated calls for authorities to address the protesters’ “five demands”, which include universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into their complaints of excessive force by the police.
Bernard Chan, the convenor of Hong Kong’s executive council that is the lead advisory body to the chief executive, wrote in an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post on Friday that Lam’s address would include responses to the discontent.
Chan said the Independent Police Complaints Council should be allowed to do its own investigation into the controversy over areas such as police procedures, and held out the option of an independent inquiry later.
Reporting by Jessie Pang, Felix Tam and Twinnie Siu Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry
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