HONG KONG, China — Thousands of antigovernment demonstrators in Hong Kong occupied a major downtown shopping district and blocked the exit of a harbour tunnel on Saturday, as demonstrations continued despite recent signs that the authorities were taking an increasingly hard line against the unrest.
Protesters streamed past the official endpoint, marching south into Tsim Sha Tsui, a harbour-front shopping area that is popular with mainland Chinese tourists. By nightfall, they had brought traffic to a standstill and had built barricades across some streets and the exit to a nearby tunnel that crosses underneath Hong Kong’s harbour.
But the police presence in Tsim Sha Tsui was notably light. They said that their operations had been temporarily suspended because of “serious obstruction.” No further details were released.
The protests, which began in early June, have thrown the semiautonomous Chinese city into its worst political crisis since Britain handed it over to China in 1997. The Hong Kong government and the police are under pressure from Beijing to restore order as the protests become more unruly and as demonstrators increasingly direct their ire at Beijing’s rule.
The protests were prompted by widespread opposition to proposed legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s unpopular chief executive, later suspended the bill and said it was “dead.” But she has refused to formally withdraw it, as protesters have demanded, or to make further concessions.
Saturday’s unrest began with a police-approved march on Kowloon, a broad peninsula that sits across a harbour from Hong Kong’s main island. The march drew people of all ages, including some older people who chanted, “Protect our children!”
Protesters said on Saturday that they had been undeterred by the government’s move earlier in the week to charge 44 people with rioting after clashes with the police. Rioting carries a prison term of up to 10 years on conviction.
“If I didn’t come out today, I’d worry that many more people might be arrested,” said Cliff Cheng, a flight attendant at Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong-based international airline.
“I feel both angry and distressed because the more things we do, the more we are met with police suppression,” Mr. Cheng, 24, added. “I would be lying to you if I tell you I’m not worried about repercussions. But if we don’t have freedom, what can we do with a job?”
Saturday’s unrest was the latest flare-up in a flurry of near-daily and sometimes unruly civil disobedience that has targeted major roads, shopping malls, the transportation network and other public places in a financial hub that is normally praised for its efficiency and low crime rates.
On Friday night, a confrontation broke out in a rural satellite town in northeastern Hong Kong, as the police used pepper spray to disperse a crowd that had gathered outside a police station where a local political activist, Andy Chan, and others had been detained.
The same night, a group of police officers in riot gear apparently stormed a housing complex in the same satellite town, Ma On Shan. The police did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday about whether the officers had obtained a search warrant beforehand.
The unrest on Saturday unfolded as thousands of supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing political establishment held a competing rally in a park on the city’s main island, across the harbour from Kowloon.
In recent weeks, Hong Kong’s leaders have defended the police, once widely known around the region as “Asia’s finest,” by saying that officers have acted appropriately despite the strain of weeks of protests. But that has only galvanised many in the protest movement and accentuated their demands for an independent inquiry into the police’s conduct.
On Friday evening, thousands of Hong Kong’s civil servants demonstrated against the government after work, sending a powerful message of discontent despite stern official warnings to all its employees stating that such gatherings in the name of the civil service violated its code of conduct, which demands political neutrality.
Some of those attending the rally said they were stirred to action by the delayed police response to mob beatings of protesters inside a train station on July 21, contrasting that response to the swift arrests of antigovernment protesters.
Others have said that they planned to participate in a general strike that protest organisers called for Monday.
Mong Kok, the Kowloon District where Saturday’s approved march began, was the site of an all-night brawl in 2016 between protesters and the police that left several people injured and prompted the authorities to arrest dozens of people and put the district on lockdown. Those confrontations started after officers tried to shut down unlicensed food vendors and escalated when protesters set fires and threw bottles and bricks.
Two political activists who were among the protesters facing rioting charges for taking part in those confrontations, Ray Wong and Alan Li, later jumped bail and fled to Germany, where they say they received refugee protection. That most likely made them the first individuals from Hong Kong to have obtained such sanctuary.
Another political activist who took part in the 2016 confrontations, Edward Leung, was sentenced last year to a six-year prison term. One of the slogans that Mr. Leung coined as he ran for office that year — “Reclaim Hong Kong; revolution of our times” — has become one of the rallying cries for protesters on the streets this summer.
China’s central government initially ignored or played down this summer’s demonstrations, but in recent weeks the state-run news media has begun focusing more attention on them — effectively attributing them to malicious foreign actors rather than homegrown political problems.
This past week, the commander of the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong warned that violent protests that challenge China’s political system were “absolutely intolerable.”
The garrison also released a promotional video that showed troops rounding up mock protesters in a drill, in which the army pledged to defend Hong Kong.
By Mike Ives and ; additional reporting by Katherine Li and Tiffany May.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.