Authorities on Tuesday charged 44 people with rioting, an offense that can carry a multiyear prison sentence, as the city’s Beijing-backed government takes a tougher stance to try to restore order after weeks of increasingly volatile protests.
It was the first time the authorities had used the charge since their move to win legislative approval for a bill authorizing extradition to the mainland drew as many as two million people onto the streets and plunged the city into political crisis in early June.
Soon after the charges became known, hundreds of people swarmed a police station in the urban district of Kwai Chung, where some of those charged were being held, to protest the decision, underscoring the risks the government faces of provoking further unrest with a harsh response.
Near midnight, dozens of protesters faced off with police with riot gear outside the police station, with videos on local media showing many in pouring rain chanting “release the martyrs.”
The rioting charges came a day after Beijing’s top office for Hong Kong affairs held a rare press conference to publicly support the city’s government and urge that authorities punish violent protesters and act to restore order. Neither Beijing nor Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, have signalled they are prepared to make further concessions that even some pro-Beijing figures in the city say are necessary to help quell the troubles.
Over the past weeks, the city has been gripped in a worsening spiral of violence between police and protesters that mark the biggest social and political crisis in the former British colony since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Although Mrs. Lam suspended the controversial extradition bill that sparked the protests, many opponents have continued to regularly hold determined protests that have widened to oppose Beijing’s tightening restrictions on the city’s freedoms.
On Sunday, a central district in Hong Kong became an urban battle scene as police shot repeated rounds of tear gas to disperse protesters and began making rapid arrests. Police said protesters attacked officers at the scene with bricks and sharpened iron rods.
Many had marched to the district after officials restricted the protest route, even though the protesters were warned that their actions constituted illegal assembly. Police arrested 32 men and 17 women, aged between 16 and 41. Of those, 45 were charged, including 44 with rioting, police said Tuesday. One person was charged with possession of offensive weapons.
Digital fliers begun circulating on the Telegram messaging app—a popular communication tool among protesters—urging them to rally Wednesday morning outside a local courthouse where those charged were to appear in the morning.
Declaring protests riots has been opposed by protesters because of the tough prison sentences the rioting charge can bring. After chaotic clashes in the city’s Mong Kok district in 2016, a local court sentenced a number of those involved to prison terms on rioting-related charges, including two who were handed six- and seven-year sentences for their role in the incident. Withdrawing officials’ designation of a June 12 protest as a riot has been a key demand of most of the protests in recent weeks.
Other acts of civil disquiet have continued this week, with some protesters on Tuesday disrupting the usually efficient subway system. More protests have been called for the next few weeks, including one initiated by civil servants for Friday.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Lam, who has been largely out of public view in recent weeks amid widespread criticism of her handling of the crisis, appeared at an event for the third day running. After appearances at a military youth camp and a women’s forum, on Tuesday she hosted business leaders in a discussion about the conflict, which has started to hurt the city’s economy.
Mrs. Lam told representatives of international and local chambers of commerce that the rule of law was a cornerstone of the city’s success and that violence wasn’t a solution to any problem, according to a government statement. Mrs. Lam has yet to publicly meet with protest groups that have taken to Hong Kong streets over the past eight weeks.