Hong Kong: Thousands of people gathered Saturday for a rally in downtown Hong Kong, belting out songs, speeches and slogans to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2014 protest movement that called for democratic reforms in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
The rally at Tamar Park by the Civil Human Rights Front was approved by police but security was tight, with barriers blocking access to government offices and the Legislative Council building, which was stormed by protesters in July.
Demonstrators unfurled a big banner that read "We are back" on a footbridge to the government office. A staircase leading to the bridge was turned into a veritable art gallery of protest art, with posters stuck on every available surface of the walkway.
One read "Persevere until final victory." Some protesters trampled on pictures of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam that were glued to the floor. At one of the gates to Lam's office, the Chinese word for "hell" and an arrow pointing to the building were spray-painted on the sidewalk.
"We think we will lose because their force is so strong," said one demonstrator, 22-year-old Sang Chan. " But if we don't do anything now, we'll have no other chance." A 32-year-old protester who would give only his surname, Chau, said they hope to wear down the government.
"It's like a marathon to see who gets tired first," he said. Just before the rally started, a small group of black-clad protesters wearing goggles and masks attempted to scale barricades outside the government offices, prompting riot police behind the barriers to fire pepper spray.
The protesters retreated but returned, heckling police and thumping metal fencing. Police used pepper spray again, and the scene repeated several times. Some journalists were hit by the spray.
Police said in a statement that a large group of protesters blocked a main road nearby, paralysing traffic, and that some damaged property outside the government offices.
"We are back with even stronger determination," activist Joshua Wong, who played a key role as a youth leader in the 2014 movement, when protesters occupied key thoroughfares in the same area for 79 days beginning Sept. 28, told thousands at the rally.
The 2014 protests ended without winning any government concessions. Earlier Saturday, Wong, 22, announced plans to contest district council elections in November. He said the vote is crucial to send a message to Beijing that the people are more determined than ever to win the battle for more rights.
Wong, who has been arrested and jailed repeatedly, said he is aware that he could be disqualified but warned it would just generate more support for the protest movement.
Members of the Demosisto party that he co-founded in 2016 have in the past been disqualified from serving and running for office because they advocated self-determination.
Wong is out on bail after he was rearrested with several other people last month and charged with organizing an illegal rally. It didn't stop him from going to the US, Germany and Taiwan to drum up support for the current protest movement, which started in June over an extradition bill but has since snowballed into an anti-China campaign.
The now-shelved bill, which would have sent some criminal suspects for trial in mainland China, is seen as a jarring example of China's intrusion into the city's autonomy.
Apart from Saturday's rally in the city center, protesters are also planning global "anti-totalitarianism" rallies on Sunday in Hong Kong and over 60 other cities worldwide to denounce what they called "Chinese tyranny."
But the biggest worry for the government is on Tuesday. Protesters plan a major march downtown, sparking fears of a bloody showdown that could embarrass China's ruling Communist Party as it marks its 70th year in power with grand festivities in Beijing. Pro-Beijing groups have also vowed to come out.
Police have banned the march, but in the past that has not stopped protesters from showing up anyway. Hong Kong's government has toned down National Day celebrations, cancelling an annual firework display and moving a reception indoors.
Separately, American academic Dan Garrett, who testified at a US congressional hearing with Wong on September 18, said Saturday that he was denied entry into Hong Kong on Thursday due to "unspecified immigration reasons." He tweeted that it was the first time he was barred after having visited and lived in Hong Kong for two decades.
Garrett and other speakers spoke about the weakening of Hong Kong's autonomy as some US congressmen sought to push through a bill to support the democracy movement. Chinese government accused the US and other foreign powers of fomenting the unrest.