Sep 27, 2014 10:45 AM

HK protesters brace for more police confrontations

The Associated Press

HONG KONG (AP) Thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators at Hong Kong government headquarters braced for a second night of confrontations with authorities Saturday after police arrested dozens during a chaotic protest against Beijing's refusal to allow genuine democratic reforms in the semiautonomous city.

Wearing goggles and plastic wrap to protect against police pepper spray, the protesters most of them students occupied an area outside government headquarters and defended their position with metal crowd-control barricades originally brought in by authorities. The crowd was still swelling late Saturday night, with supporters continuing to arrive.

Earlier in the day, police arrested 74 people who had stormed into a courtyard in the government complex late Friday, some of them scaling a tall fence. They refused to leave until police cleared them out by early Saturday afternoon. The protesters, the youngest of whom is 16, were arrested for offenses including assault and disorderly conduct.

The standoff follows a weeklong strike by thousands of students demanding China's Communist leaders allow Hong Kong fully democratic elections in 2017. University and college students who had spent the week boycotting classes were joined Friday by a smaller group of high school students.

At least 34 people have been injured since the protest began, including four police officers and 11 government staff and guards, authorities said. One of the officers suffered a gash after being poked by one of the umbrellas the protesters have been using to deflect pepper spray.

Police issued a news release urging the protesters to leave peacefully and avoid obstructing officers, saying that otherwise they would "soon take actions to restore public order."

Ingrid Sze, a 22-year-old student at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said she joined the demonstrators after seeing the police take action.

"I didn't participate in the boycott all week. But I saw what was happening to the students live on TV and I thought what the police were doing was so outrageous I had to come out tonight to support the students and my friends," she said.

Hong Kong Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok told reporters that police acted appropriately and gave students sufficient warning before starting the process of clearing the square.

Organizers estimated that 50,000 people had flooded the streets around the government complex. Police did not give an estimate.

China, which took control of the former British colony in 1997, has promised that Hong Kong can have universal suffrage. But tensions over the Asian financial hub's political future boiled over after China's legislature last month ruled out letting the public nominate candidates, instead insisting they be screened by a committee of Beijing loyalists similar to the one that currently picks the city's leader.

Hong Kong's young people have been among the most vocal supporters of full democracy in recent years, fueled by anger over widening inequality. They also fear that Beijing's tightening grip is eroding the city's rule of law and guaranteed civil liberties unseen on the mainland such as freedom of speech.

"We really want real democracy, so we'll stay here and fight to get what we want," said Jo Tai, a 28-year-old teacher. "We don't want everyone else to decide our future; we want the right to decide our future for this generation and the next generation." She and others said they were prepared to be arrested.

Demonstrators chanted slogans including "Fight to the end" and "Free the protesters" and carried placards calling for civil disobedience. Supporters dropped off piles of water bottles, energy drinks, bread, chocolate, biscuits, fruit and other provisions.

Organizers said those arrested at government headquarters included Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old leader of the activist group Scholarism, who was dragged away by four officers. Wong, a recent high school graduate, gained prominence two years ago after he organized protests that forced Hong Kong's government to back off plans to introduce a Chinese national education curriculum that some feared was a form of brainwashing.

"Our movement is peaceful and does not use aggression," said University of Hong Kong students' union president Yvonne Leung. "Students who decided to storm inside (the government complex) knew about their legal responsibility."

The student protest was organized independently of Occupy Central, an alliance of pro-democracy activists planning to blockade Hong Kong's financial district to call for genuine democratic reforms.

On Saturday, several Occupy Central members joined students protesting outside the square.

Benny Tai, a key leader of the Occupy Central movement, told reporters that the group would "stay with the students until the end and risk getting arrested ourselves." Tai criticized the amount of force police used on students.

Occupy Central has hinted that its blockade will begin Wednesday, China's National Day holiday. But the organizers canceled a planned announcement Sunday to confirm the timing, saying they wanted to focus on supporting the students.


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