Hong Kong’s harshest crackdown yet on democracy marchers fails to blunt protests

A student protester uses an umbrella to block pepper spray from riot police as thousands of protesters surround the government headquarters in Hong Kong Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)
A student protester uses an umbrella to block pepper spray from riot police as thousands of protesters surround the government headquarters in Hong Kong Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Wally Santana) AP

Hong Kong police used tear gas and pepper spray against pro-democracy protesters Sunday in the city’s harshest crackdown on free assembly since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.

Tear gas wafted outside the city’s government complex for much of the evening, but it did little to disperse some of the thousands of students and other Hong Kong residents who have been protesting there since Friday. By 1:30 a.m. Monday local time, there were still many thousands occupying roads and plazas near the Admiralty government complex, some dousing their eyes with water because of the tear gas.

Human rights groups and Hong Kong leaders denounced the police response to what has been three days of peaceful, if unruly, demonstrations.

“This is a sad day for Hong Kong,” said Anson Chan Fang On-sang, Hong Kong's former No 2 official, in a statement. “Pictures of our police force firing pepper spray and tear gas into the faces of unarmed protestors will shame our government in front of the whole world.”

Protest leaders said they would continue to exercise their right to assemble in coming days, creating the possibility that one of Asia’s biggest trade and financial centers could be shut down for days.

Two groups of different generations are demonstrating against what they see as Beijing’s efforts to rig a 2017 election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive. Occupy Central, the main group, is led by three academics who had originally planned to stage a mass occupation of the city’s central business district starting Wednesday, the start of China’s week-long national holiday.

But Occupy Central decided Sunday to move up its protest, and move its location to the government complex, in solidarity with students who had spent several days there.

On Friday and Saturday, police began using pepper spray on protesters and arrested several student leaders, including Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old recent high school grade who has become the face of the student protest. That move prompted thousands of young people to join the gathering Saturday and Sunday night, many wearing goggles and plastic wrap to protect themselves from further pepper spraying.

By Sunday afternoon, police had arrested more than 74 people. At least 34 have been injured since the protest began, including four police officers, according to government authorities.

For a while, it appeared that Sunday’s protests would pass uneventfully. But later in the afternoon, an influx of protestors had surrounded the police line that previously surrounded the core group of demonstrators. Police began to don riot gear and urged the crowd to disperse or face the consequences.

Shortly after 6 pm, police started firing tear gas in repeated apparent attempts to push back the protesters. Subway service was suspended in the area, an effort to prevent more protesters from arriving. In response, protesters started occupying other parts of the city, including Causeway Bay and Mong Kok on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong.

By early Monday evening, the numbers of protestors at the government complex had shrunk, diminished by both exhaustion and calls by some student leaders for protesters not to risk their lives, given the police response. But many stayed, taking “selfies” on their mobile devises or passing the time picking up trash and carefully separating bottles and cardboard sleeping mats for recycling.

Sonny Foo, 23, could be seen dousing himself with water at 1 a.m. Monday following another tear gas attack. He said he had stayed away from the protests until he heard about the police response, but then was motivated to join the students.

“We are fighting for our freedom,” he said, goggles on his head. “I don’t want my children to live in a place that does things like this.”

Foo and his friend Jeremy Tam, also 23, said they had heard reports that troops of People’s Liberation Army was massing on the mainland’s border with Hong Kong. Such reports could not be confirmed, but they reflect a widespread fear here that China could use Tiananmen Square tactics to squelch further protests.

Benny Tai, one of the founders of Occupy Central, delivered a short speech in the afternoon urging protestors to remain resolute. “For many people here, myself included, we will soon have a first taste of pepper spray and police officers hauling you away. Don’t be afraid nor humiliated,” said Tai, according to a translation provided by the South China Morning Post.

“Fighters, get ready for this banquet. I believe more banquets will follow. See you again on the next banquet!” he added, referring to further possible Occupy demonstrations.

Although China took control of Hong Kong 17 years ago, the former British colony has grown accustomed to free speech and assembly rights unknown on the mainland. Past protests have generally been treated with restraint by Hong Kong police.

In 2012, students by the thousands converged on the government complex to protest a Chinese national education curriculum that some saw as pro-Beijing propaganda. The protestors were allowed to demonstrate peacefully for several days, prompting the Hong Kong government to drop the proposed curriculum.

All that has changed in the last three days, as Hong Kong’s newspapers and TV news has been filled with images of young people being pepper sprayed, some writhing on the ground in agony.

The Hong Kong government says police responded in a “restrained manner” after some of the protestors on Saturday had forced their way into the city’s Legislative Council complex “by violent means.”

On Sunday, Hong Kong’s current executive, C.Y. Leung held a press conference and issued a statement, which did not sound conciliatory.

“The HKSAR government is resolute in opposing the unlawful occupation of the central government offices or the Central District by ‘Occupy Central,’” the statement said. The police are determined to handle the situation appropriately in accordance with the law.”

The Chinese government has said Hong Kong can elect its next chief executive through universal suffrage. But last month, China’s legislature rejected Occupy Central’s demands that the public be allowed to nominate candidates. Instead, candidates will be put forward by a nominating committee, a panel that democracy advocates say is stacked with Beijing loyalists.

This week’s protests call on China and Hong Kong’s leaders to reopen negotiations on the current system for selecting a chief executive, which Occupy Central says does not meet international standards.

The unrest in Hong Kong is getting only sporadic and one-sided news coverage in mainland China, where the ruling Communist Party controls all state media. But it is being closely watched in Taiwan, which is being courted by Beijing to reunify with the mainland. Beijing has promised Taiwan it could retain its autonomy through a “one country, two systems” model similar to Hong Kong. But Beijing recent actions in Hong Kong have alienated many Taiwanese, and bolstered the political wing that opposes any talk of reunification.

Protests in support of Hong Kong democracy were held over the weekend in New York and other cities worldwide. As of early Monday, Hong Kong time, more than 149,000 people had signed a petition urging President Obama to press the Chinese government for democracy in Hong Kong and a peaceful response to the protests.

“Given Beijing’s record, we fear a second Tiananmen massacre will happen in Hong Kong,” the petition states. “We believe that the US has the responsibility to prevent such bloody tragedies from happening.”