Oct 3, 2014 10:05 AM
Men try to force Hong Kong protesters off streets
The Associated Press
HONG KONG (AP) Pushing, grabbing and cursing, hundreds of men sought on Friday to break up barricades set up by activists in Hong Kong streets they have been occupying over the past week in protests demanding greater democracy.
The scuffles in Kowloon's crowded Mong Kok district, one of several areas where protesters have camped, were the most chaotic since police used tear gas and pepper spray last weekend to try to disperse protesters pushing for greater electoral reforms for the territory.
The democracy activists linked arms and held hands as they tried to stand their ground against the huge crowd. Police formed cordons and escorted some of the protesters away as hundreds of onlookers chanted, "Pack up!" and "Go home!"
It was unclear if the mob of people in their 30s and older trying to drive away the mostly younger protesters were organized. But at least some were local residents fed up with the inconvenience of blocked streets and closed shops. Stern orders by the police to stop blocking the way may have encouraged them to act on their own.
"It's not about whether I support their cause or not. It's about whether what they are doing is legal or not," said Donald Chan, 45. "It is illegal. It has brought chaos to the city."
Police were hard-pressed to keep order as the two sides tussled in a tense standoff. The people trying to force out the vastly outnumbered younger protesters were yelling, shoving and at times trying to drag them away.
Some people emerged bloodied from the fracas. Occasional heavy rain showers did not noticeably thin the crowds, and as the night wore on thousands of people still crowded the street.
The protesters, led by university students, said that if authorities did not act to protect the unarmed, peaceful demonstrators, they would retract an agreement to hold talks with the city government as proposed by Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
"Stop the violence or we call off the talks," the groups of students and other activists said in a statement.
In Causeway Bay, another area occupied by protesters, groups of young men in face masks were forced away from the protesters by police.
Police spokesman Steve Hui appealed to the public to "observe the laws of Hong Kong when they are expressing their views."
The protesters have stayed in the streets since Sept. 26 in the biggest challenge to Beijing's authority since China took control of this former British colony in 1997. They are pushing for the Chinese government to reverse its decision requiring a mostly pro-Beijing committee approve candidates for Hong Kong's first election to choose the territory's leader in 2017. The demonstrators want open nominations.
Hong Kong's top civil servant, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, said Friday she had begun organizing the talks with the protesters, who have continued their sit-ins after Leung rejected their calls to resign.
"I am indeed very concerned about the clashes we have seen in the streets," Lam said.
"Sentiments are running high and there is a high chance of conflict on the streets," she said. "So I am urging protesters who have been occupying parts of the territory to consider retreating ... so that the police can restore law and order."
Benny Tai, leader of the broader pro-democracy movement Occupy Central With Love and Peace urged protesters to shift back to the Admiralty area, near the government headquarters, where they began their protests last weekend, for safety's sake.
China's government has been largely silent on the protests, other than to call them illegal and support the Hong Kong government's efforts to disperse them. However, the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily has published lengthy commentary on the protests.
In a front-page editorial Friday, it accused a small group of protesters of trying to "hijack the system" and said the effort was doomed to failure.
There is "no room for concessions" on the candidate screening issue, it said, noting that Hong Kong "is directly under the jurisdiction of the central government; it is not a country or an independent political entity."
Some who are sympathetic to the protesters' demands for wider political reforms complained the police were not doing enough to protect the demonstrators.
"We saw people with no uniforms in Causeway Bay and Mong Kok attack protesters and take away their belongings," said Cyd Ho, vice-chairwoman of the Labor Party.
"Police have the duty to safeguard peaceful demonstrations by Hong Kong citizens," Ho said. "If police do not intervene this sets a dangerous precedent ... that if people are unhappy with protesters they can attack them with impunity."
But some residents complained that the protests were disrupting their lives and hurting their livelihoods.
"It affected my company, a perfume business, to deliver goods in the area," said Ken Lai in the bustling Causeway Bay neighborhood. "I really dislike the fact that they occupied so many areas, all scattered around the city. I'm a Hong Konger too. The occupiers don't represent all of us."
Associated Press writers Elaine Kurtenbach, Kelvin Chan and Louise Watt contributed to this report.