Police unleashed tear gas on democracy protesters in Hong Kong on Sunday evening and threatened to use even more aggressive methods to disperse tens of thousands of demonstrators who paralyzed key sections of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Police in olive green fatigues and holding rifles were pacing down the streets near government headquarters. Other officers occasionally pushed back the protesters, many of whom raised their arms to show their peaceful intent. At one point, police hoisted a sign reading, “Leave or We Will Open Fire,” though it was unclear if that meant officers intended to release tear gas, rubber bullets or something else.
Vehicular traffic ground to a halt and dozens of bus lines were diverted as crowds filled roadways. The tear gas sent some protesters running but crowds quickly regathered and the situation remained tense as night fell.
“The people of Hong Kong want freedom and want democracy!” a protest leader yelled into a megaphone as demonstrators donned goggles and held up umbrellas to shield themselves in case they were hit with tear gas or pepper spray.
Protest leaders issued a deadline of midnight Sunday for the city’s top official, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, to address their demands for free, open elections. They also demanded that Beijing-backed Leung and some of his aides resign and that the government reopen a public plaza within the main government compound to allow for protests. The area, known as Civic Plaza, was cordoned off recently after demonstrations.
They vowed to keep standing their ground at the government office compound.
More than 70 people have been arrested since Friday, including three local legislators who were detained Sunday after they had helped deliver audio equipment to protesters on the scene.
“We’re going to win this fight not with our fists but with our conscience and moral sentiments,” said Chan Kin-man, the Chinese University sociology professor who co-organized Occupy Central With Peace and Love, one of the main protest groups.
Tension over rules for the city’s 2017 chief executive election has been building for months in Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 under a framework known as “one country, two systems.”
The territory’s 7 million citizens enjoy significantly greater civil liberties than their counterparts in Communist-run mainland China.
Election guidelines issued by mainland Chinese government authorities last month have generated fierce condemnation among certain segments of Hong Kong’s populace, particularly university students.
Although the rules would allow the territory’s 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots for the first time for Hong Kong’s chief executive – who until now has been chosen by a 1,200 member committee — critics say the nomination process would restrict candidates to only people Communist authorities in Beijing approve of.
Those protesting this weekend are seeking to encourage local legislators to reject the framework put forth by Beijing or somehow modify it.
University students boycotted classes last week in protest of the election rules, and student groups said Sunday they would extend their class boycott into this week. They called on Hong Kong workers to join them by going on strike.
In response to the situation, Leung held a press conference Sunday and said he had faith in the professional judgment of the police force to handle the protestors.
Rejecting calls to refuse the 2017 election framework laid out by Beijing, Leung said: “It isn’t up to us to set aside the decision.”
Hong Kong has seen much bigger rallies, marches and demonstrations in recent years, some attracting hundreds of thousands of people, but the standoff this weekend has been notable for its rancor and the use of force by police. In general, Hong Kong protests tend to be disciplined and orderly.
A Chinese government spokesman in Beijing issued a statement saying it was confident that Leung and Hong Kong authorities could handle protesters “according to law.”
Characterizing the protests as “illegal activities that could undermine rule of law and jeopardize social tranquility,” the spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of China’s State Council said Beijing authorities offered their “strong backing” to Hong Kong officials.
Ed Chin, a supporter of the Occupy Central movement who spent most of the day among the protesters, said in a phone interview Sunday night that the clashes between protesters and police were a “plot by the Communist Party.”
“They are not honoring ‘one country two systems,’” Chin said. “This is exactly the tactics they want to use – scare tactics, creating social unrest, making people unhappy.”
Law is a special correspondent.
Law reported from Hong Kong and Makinen from Beijing.
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