Tired of playing cat and mouse, Hong Kong police showed their claws Wednesday, unleashing a display of force that cleared the city’s second-largest protest site in a matter of hours.
With surprising quickness, police, court bailiffs, heavy equipment operators and a mysterious group of uniformed “volunteers” dismantled barricades from several blocks of Nathan Road, a major thoroughfare in the Mong Kok section of Hong Kong. As the clearance progressed, police detained and arrested dozens of pro-democracy protesters, including prominent student leaders Joshua Wong Chi-fung and Lester Shum.
Backed by hundreds of police, court officials started the clearance at roughly 9 a.m. Within two hours, six-lane Nathan Road was free of encampments. An hour later, street cleaners had finished their work, and taxis and trucks sped down a corridor that young activists had occupied for nearly two months.
It was a setback back for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, but hardly the finale. Hundreds of protesters continue to occupy the original protest site in Admiralty, the government center in downtown Hong Kong. And hundreds – possibly thousands – flooded into Mong Kok Wednesday night, forcing the police to deploy battalions of weary officers.
Armed with shields and helmets, police attempted to prevent protesters from retaking lost turf. In so doing, they raised the ire of neighborhood residents, some of whom said they felt like they were dealing with a military occupation.
A former Hong Kong police commander slammed the city’s government for making the police do its dirty work, instead of seeking a political accommodation with the protesters, who have mostly been nonviolent.
“We now have a situation where several opposing factions are facing off against each other in an increasing state of disarray,” Steve Vickers, a Hong Kong security consultant, said in a statement. “The only group keeping this untenable situation from slipping towards chaos is a police force that is increasingly stretched, tired and demoralised.”
About 7,000 police – nearly a fifth of the city’s force – have been deployed the last two days in Mong Kok. They are backing up bailiffs acting on court orders to clear the neighborhood. Hong Kong judges issued the injunctions in response to bus and taxi groups that said they’ve lost business because of the protests and street closures.
Although police generally have shown restraint the last two months, protesters say numerous officers acted with excessive force over the last 48 hours. Television footage has shown officers knocking protesters and journalists to the ground, clubbing them while down, spraying them indiscriminately with pepper spray and charging them even while they were not challenging police. A McClatchy reporter witnessed several of these confrontations Tuesday and Wednesday.
It’s not the first time Hong Kong police have been accused of brutality. In mid-October, television footage showed police beating a well-known political advocate, Ken Tsang Kin-chiu. On Wednesday, Hong Kong police announced that they had arrested seven officers for allegedly assaulting Tsang, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.
Protesters are demanding a more democratic form of government in Hong Kong, a former British colony that was turned over to China in 1997. The turnover agreement promised Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy.” But Beijing has insisted that it will vet candidates who would be Hong Kong’s chief executive in a 2017 election, a decision that sparked the current protests.
On Wednesday morning, police gained the upper hand following a night of clashes with protesters, many of whom were ready to grab their belongings and give up without a fight. Early in the morning, bailiffs arrived, along with a group of men wearing red helmets and shirts that said, “I love Hong Kong.”
The red-helmeted men set about clearing barricades, provoking questions from protesters about their authority. Some of the men clashed with protesters before officers separated them. Local media reported the red-helmeted men were from local taxi companies, but it was not immediately clear why police and bailiffs allowed them to join in the clearance.
Hong Kong’s secretary for security, Lai Tung-kwok, urged protesters early Wednesday to leave Nathan Road immediately, according to the Morning Post. Protesters, he said, should “stop charging” police lines.
Trucks with cranes were brought in to scoop up tents and the dismantled barricades. Protest sympathizers booed when traffic returned to Nathan Road, while counterdemonstrators applauded. Several jewelry stores – catering largely to mainland Chinese tourists – reopened as traffic started flowing. Their employees could be seen smiling on the sidewalks during the afternoon.
At night, it was a different story. A crush of people, mainly protesters or their supporters, flooded the district, some spurred on by calls on social media. On Tuesday night, a similar group clashed with police west of Nathan Road. On Wednesday night, the clashes shifted east, to Sai Yeung Choi Street.
At some point in the morning, police arrested Joshua Wong, the teenage leader of the Scholarism group who has become the face of the pro-democracy protests. It was not immediately clear what Wong was charged with or if he was still in custody late Wednesday.
Vickers, the former police commander, has urged Hong Kong’s leaders, including Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, also known as Leung Chun-ying, to broker some kind of truce with protesters. Leung was traveling Wednesday and has not had face-to-face talks with protesters, who want him to resign.
“Throughout this ordeal, the Hong Kong government has remained effectively inactive and unwilling to engage politically with either the demonstrators or even the public,” Vickers said. “This stance leaves little to no incentive for diehards, or even moderates, to back down.”