Global trade riots rock Hong Kong
Police fight running battles with protesters and break
up demos with tear gas as WTO negotiations reach
Tom Burgis and Jonathan Watts in Hong Kong
Sunday December 18, 2005
Hong Kong was hit by its most violent street clashes
in more than 30 years last night as riot police fought
running battles with protesters on the penultimate day
of World Trade Organisation talks.
While negotiators inside the conference hall struggled
to agree to a watered-down compromise on the future of
global commerce, demonstrators outside ratcheted up
their attempt to derail a deal that they believe sells
poor countries short.
The result was the fiercest fighting this normally
sedate commercial city has seen since the 1960s.
Police Commissioner Dick Lee said 41 people -
including five police - were injured, but only two of
them needed to be kept in hospital. Lee said police
have detained 900 people and were determining whether
to formally arrest them. 'If necessary we will make
arrests. We will not let them go easily,' he said.
Police used water cannon, tear gas and pepper spray to
repulse protesters - mostly Korean farmers - who tried
to break through their lines with iron bars, wooden
poles and battering rams made from steel security
With the clashes spread out over several hours and
locations, there were numerous injuries, including
several Koreans and police with bloody head wounds,
and a woman who lost consciousness amid a thick, acrid
cloud of tear gas. At one point, protesters smashed
their way through police lines and entered the outer
buildings of the convention centre. However, they were
quickly driven out by police using truncheons - and
according to one unconfirmed report - rubber bullets.
Miles of roads were cordoned off in the emergency,
preventing trade delegates - at least temporarily -
from entering or leaving the conference hall at a
crucial stage in negotiations. 'The enemy have
gathered near here,' explained one young police
officer. 'There are hundreds of them, so we have
blocked the roads.'
The fighting transformed a whole stretch of the city.
The red-light strip of Wan Chai was eerily deserted.
Instead of the usual Saturday-night hustle and bustle
of prostitutes, strippers and punters, the area was
locked down by thousands of grim-faced riot police.
The shopping and dining area of Causeway Bay was
similarly blocked off. Instead of traffic and
shoppers, the streets echoed with ambulence sirens,
the buzz of police helicopters, the rhythmic drumming
beaten out by Korean farm women in traditional dress,
and the occasional dull crack of a tear gas round.
'We had a permit to protest, but midway along our
route the police blocked our way. That is why there
was violence,' said Rex Verona of the Asian Migrants
Forum. 'Now is a critical moment in the negotiations.
We will not allow governments and negotiators to sell
The demonstrators' anger has been stirred up by
reports that negotiators are moving closer to a
compromise package that does not include the key
demand of many NGOs: an end to European and American
agriculture subsidies that are destroying the
livelihood of farmers in poor countries. Although
there may be a small aid package to ease the
disappointment, the most important issues related to
global inequality are likely to be deferred to a
make-or-break meeting early next year, while the main
demands of wealthy nations - related to the service
and manufacturing sectors - are pushed to the fore.
It is still far from clear that a deal can be agreed
before tomorrow's deadline. The demonstrators want
wavering countries - particularly Venezuela,
Indonesia, Cuba, South Africa and the Philippines - to
veto the plan.
'This protest is geared to strengthen the resistance
of developing countries inside the conference centre,
so they can block the awful deal that is being
discussed,' said Walden Bellow, director of Focus on
the Global South, who held out a copy of the proposal
on the front line of the demonstration.
Despite the conservative and peace-loving reputation
of Hong Kong, many local people who saw the clashes
sympathised with the demonstrators.
Dozens joined the protests, some wearing surgical face
masks for the first time since the Sars crisis, but
this time to conceal their identity and protect
themselves against tear gas.
'I'm ready to join the front line,' said one
20-year-old student who gave his name only as Z. 'I've
never done this before, but I listen to the
anti-globalisation lyrics of bands like Franco
American. I'm angry at the WTO.'
Late last night hundreds of protesters were still on
the streets: some lying down, some chanting, some
drumming, many promising to stay there until morning
if that was what it took to get their message across
to the delegates.
'We would just like to march to the front of the
convention centre so that we can express our opinion,'
said Lee Chang Eun, of the Korean Federation of Trade Unions.