SHAFAQNA – Thousands of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists forced the temporary closure of government headquarters on Monday after clashing with police, defying orders to retreat after more than two months of sustained protests in the Chinese-controlled city.
Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying said police had been very tolerant but would now take “resolute action”, suggesting that patience may have finally run dry.
Chaos erupted as commuters made their way to work, with hundreds of protesters surrounding Admiralty Center, which houses offices and retail outlets, in a stand-off with police. The central government offices and the legislature were forced to close in the morning, as were scores of shops.
The latest flare-up, during which police charged protesters with batons and pepper spray, underscored the frustration of protesters at Beijing’s refusal to budge on electoral reforms and grant greater democracy to the former British colony.
“Some people have mistaken the police’s tolerance for weakness,” Leung told reporters. “I call for students who are planning to return to the occupation sites tonight not to do so.”
He did not respond when asked if police would clear the sites on Monday.
The democracy movement represents one of the biggest threats for China’s Communist Party leadership since Beijing’s bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy student protests in and around Tiananmen Square.
Hundreds of riot police scattered the crowds in several rounds of heated clashes overnight, forcing protesters back with pepper spray and batons.
Scores of volunteer medics attended to numerous injured, some who lay unconscious and others with blood streaming from head gashes. Police said at least 40 arrests were made.
As police tackled the running battles in Admiralty, tensions escalated across the harbor in the working-class district of Mong Kok, which had been the scene of violent clashes in recent weeks before the clearance of a large protest encampment from a major area there last Wednesday.
The unrest came as British lawmakers said they had been told by the Chinese Embassy they would not be allowed to enter Hong Kong as part of an inquiry into Britain’s relations with its former colony and progress towards democracy.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing had told Britain it was opposed to the inquiry and that as China had responsibility for Hong Kong’s foreign affairs, it had every right to decide who to let into the city.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that gave it some autonomy from the mainland and an undated promise of universal suffrage.
The protesters are demanding free elections for the city’s next leader in 2017 rather than the vote between pre-screened candidates that Beijing has said it would allow.
The overnight clashes came after student leaders called on activists to escalate their protests.
Despite several waves of clampdowns, crowds of protesters, many in protective goggles and body armor, refused to leave the area and continued to press against police lines, chanting “We want universal suffrage!”. They threw bottles, helmets and umbrellas at police as tensions simmered into mid-morning.
Scores of demonstrators held up umbrellas, which have become a symbol of the pro-democracy movement, to protect themselves.
The Hong Kong rallies drew more than 100,000 on to the streets at their peak. Numbers have since dwindled and public support for the movement has waned.
(This story was refiled to drop redundant reference to “Leung” in second paragraph)