Police fire teargas at pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong police fired teargas and launched baton charges as tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters brought a central area of the city to a standstill late on Sunday.
The demonstrators, equipped with goggles and face masks to ward off teargas and pepper spray, flooded the streets around the government complex in Admiralty – a bustling commercial area in downtown Hong Kong – leading authorities to divert bus routes and shut down a subway station. They chanted for police to leave and for Leung Chun-ying, the city’s chief executive, to resign.
The stand-off continued into the early hours of this morning, with police clearing another group in Central but defiant protesters in Admiralty dispersing and then regrouping repeatedly. Volunteers barricaded roads and tried to block police from advancing by surrounding them, raising their hands in the air to show they would not attack. Smaller protests sprang up in the shopping district of Causeway Bay and in Mong Kok, Kowloon.
In a recorded statement, posted on a government website in the early morning, Leung reassured the public that the Chinese army would not intervene, as some had rumoured.
“I hope the public will keep calm. Don’t be misled by the rumours,” he said, urging everyone to return home. “We don’t want Hong Kong to be messy.”
Many members of the initial surge left late on Sunday night as the Hong Kong Federation of Students urged protesters to retreat, citing concerns that police might escalate their use of force. “Stay safe. This is a long battle,” it wrote on Twitter.
One member of a first aid team preparing to withdraw for the night said she feared police were ready to use “Beijing rules, not Hong Kong rules”. But thousands more remained at the scene at Admiralty.
The protest’s main organiser, Occupy Central with Peace and Love, has called for a new era of civil disobedience to protest against the government’s plans to tightly limit electoral changes, despite long-held promises that the city’s residents would be allowed to choose their own leader by 2017.
The demonstration was originally planned to begin later this week, but Occupy Central brought the protest’s starting date forward after a group of students, galvanised by a week of peaceful protest, invaded the city’s main government compound on Friday night. At least 34 people have been injured in the clashes, while nearly 80 people have been arrested since Friday.
Benny Tai, one of Occupy Central’s leaders, said the movement would continue until Leung resigned and Beijing changed its position on political reform.
As thousands of supporters gathered, Tai told the South China Morning Post: “It is totally unexpected ... it’s all about our pursuit of democracy. Beijing now sees it; the world sees it; CY Leung, do you see it?”
Beijing has promised universal suffrage for the next chief executive election in 2017. But the framework it announced is so restrictive that it would effectively bar any democrat from standing – the two or three candidates will be vetted by a nominating committee composed largely of Beijing loyalists. Critics have called the arrangement a sham and an exercise in Iranian-style democracy.
The former British colony enjoys considerable autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework, but many believe Beijing is intent on eroding its freedoms, such as independent courts and a free press.
Beijing has shown no sign of backing down. On Sunday evening, the central government’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office condemned the protest as an illegal gathering, and expressed confidence that the Hong Kong government would “handle the Occupy Central movement according to law”, the state newswire Xinhua reported.
While some left as police fired teargas – a highly unusual tactic in Hong Kong – others appeared to have been galvanised by officers’ tactics. “The actions of the police are showing the public what a tyrannical government looks like,” said Bonnie Leung, 27.
The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union announced it would strike on Monday in protest at police brutality. The Hong Kong Federation of Students also announced plans to indefinitely extend a week-long class boycott that began last Monday.
Stanley Chan, one of a group of 17-year-old friends who had just arrived, said: “They need us. They need more people to come out. We are worried, but we are not afraid.” The teenagers said their parents were concerned about the risks but supported their decision.
Most of those in the crowd appeared to be in their teens or their 20s and 30s, though older participants were present too – one middle-aged woman wiped her eyes with a damp towel as she recovered from the effects of teargas. They were good-tempered and at times well organised, with volunteers clearing the way for deliveries of water bottles to thirsty protesters.
Rachel Lam, one of the volunteers proffering rolls of plastic wrap for those in need of impromptu eye shields, said: “When I watched TV this afternoon, I was so furious, I came to support the students and protesters.”
The 35-year-old teacher was pessimistic about the prospects of the stand-off ending peacefully, and said the wider community in Hong Kong was still split over the issue. “In my family, my mother doesn’t support this. She didn’t allow me to come here, but I told her it was my responsibility,” she added.
But many of those present said they would probably have to go to work on Monday rather than protesting.
Michael Davis, a professor at Hong Kong University who was present during the clashes, said: “If there’s violence out of Occupy Central, it will be because the government is heavy-handed. We are talking about a society that has lived under freedom, a free press, and free markets for as long as they can remember. Now they are told they are going to have some kind of ‘mainland style’ democracy.”
In a statement released in the early hours, Hong Kong police said that officers had exercised restraint and acted in a highly professional manner.
It added: “Police urge the protesters to stay calm, and stop charging police cordon lines and occupying the main roads, so that the roads can be reopened to emergency and public vehicles.”
Officers appeared to be expecting a long night, with scores sleeping on the floors of a concrete overpass and an office and shopping complex.