Hong Kong activists clash with police at 'Occupy Central' protest
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Hong Kong police used tear gas for the first time on Sunday to disperse pro-democracy protests and baton-charged the crowd blocking a key road in the government district after Hong Kong and Chinese officials warned against illegal demonstrations.
The city’s Admiralty district had descended into chaos as chanting pro-democracy protesters converged on police barricades surrounding their colleagues who had earlier launched a “new era” of civil disobedience to pressure Beijing into granting full democracy to Hong Kong.
Police, in lines five deep in places wearing helmets and gas masks, staged repeated pepper spray and baton charges and threw tear gas. The crowds fled several hundred yards, scattering their umbrellas.
Police had not used tear gas in Hong Kong since 2005, to break up World Trade Organisation protests against South Korean farmers.
Chanting “remove the blockade” and “shame on you”, thousands of protesters blocked some of Hong Kong’s busiest streets, Gloucester Road and Harcourt Road, and milled among the stalled traffic after Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying pledged “resolute” action against a movement known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace.
“The police are determined to handle the situation appropriately in accordance with the law,” Leung said just hours before the charge began.
A spokesperson for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office added that the central government fully supported Hong Kong’s handling of the situation “in accordance with the law”.
Inside the cordon, thousands had huddled in plastic capes, masks and goggles, a defence against pepper spray, as they waited for a fresh police charge to clear the area before Hong Kong opens for business on Monday morning.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a formula known as “one country, two systems” that guaranteed a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China. Universal suffrage was set as an eventual goal.
But Beijing last month rejected demands for people to freely choose the city’s next leader, prompting threats from activists to shut down Central. China wants to limit elections to a handful of candidates loyal to Beijing.
While promising a fresh round of public consultation, Leung also described Beijing’s decision as “legally binding”.
Publishing tycoon Jimmy Lai, a key backer of the democratic movement, said he wanted as big a crowd of protesters as possible, after a week of student demonstrations, to thwart any crackdown.
“The more Hong Kong citizens come, the more unlikely the police can clear up the place,” said Lai, also wearing a plastic cape and workmen’s protective glasses.
“Even if we get beaten up, we cannot fight back. We will win this war with love and peace.”
Some protesters have trained for months in non-violent resistance, determined to make it as hard as possible for police to move them - their actions mirrored by police who have also stepped up anti-riot training and other tactics.
Communist Party leaders in Beijing are terrified of calls for democracy spreading to cities on the mainland, threatening their grip on power. Such dissent would never be allowed on the mainland, where student protests calling for democracy were crushed with heavy loss of life on and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
Pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said three fellow legislators were among a small group of activists detained by police, including democratic leaders Albert Ho and Emily Lau.
Veteran democracy campaigner Martin Lee said Hong Kong people believed democracy was good for the city and the rest of China. “They are prepared to sacrifice the comfort of freedom for the sake of themselves, their children and their children’s children,” he said.
Organisers said as many as 80,000 people thronged the streets in Admiralty, galvanised by the arrests of student activists on Friday.
No independent estimate of the crowd numbers was available but the action is being seen as the most tenacious civil disobedience action since 1997.
A week of protests escalated into violence when student-led demonstrators broke through a cordon late on Friday and scaled a fence to invade the city’s main government compound after a week of peaceful action. Police used pepper spray to disperse the crowd.
The clashes were the most heated in a series of anti-Beijing protests that underscore the central government’s challenge to stamp its will on Hong Kong.
Police have so far arrested 78 people, including Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old leader of student group Scholarism, who was dragged away after he called on the protesters to charge the government premises. He was still in detention on Sunday.
His parents said in a statement the decision to detain him was an act of “political persecution”.
As the crowd built in support of the students, the leaders of Occupy announced they had brought forward their own campaign, which had been due to start mid-week targeting the Central financial district.
Along with Hong Kong and Chinese officials, some of Hong Kong’s most powerful tycoons have spoken out against the Occupy movement, warning it could threaten the city’s business and economic stability.