An organiser of Hong Kong’s civil disobedience movement has urged thousands of citizens to keep up pro-democracy protests across the city until the government addresses their demands.
Crowds of demonstrators blocking key roads swelled again on Monday afternoon, despite an apparent step back by police, with others saying they planned to join the throng as soon as they finished work.
Police attempts to use teargas to clear huge protests from Admiralty and Central in downtown Hong Kong late on Sunday backfired, instead spurring more people to take to the streets, with numbers peaking in the tens of thousands. New protests sprang up in Causeway Bay and Mongkok, in Kowloon.
“What we have seen is spontaneous – without leadership, without prior organisation, of its own volition … a people’s movement. We simply want basic dignity. We simply want to be respected,” said lawmaker Alan Leong of the Civic party.
Parts of the financial hub, generally known for its orderliness, were paralysed by the protesters on Monday. Banks, schools and some businesses were closed. But in Central, businesses operated as usual and in Causeway Bay, tourists and shoppers made their way around the demonstrations.
The government announced on Monday morning that riot police had been taken off the streets – though a few were later seen on duty – as citizens had “mostly calmed down”. It urged people to unblock roads and disperse. Police later told a press conference they had used what they believed to be a minimal level of force.
Chan Kin-man, one of Occupy Central’s leaders, said Hong Kong residents should continue to protest as long as there was no risk of escalated force, pointing out that the chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, had said police would not shoot at protesters or seek help from the People’s Liberation Army. But he told the South China Morning Post: “We’re worried that there are people infiltrating to cause trouble.”
Protests have been peaceful to date, with participants holding their hands in the air as they confronted police.
Hong Kong enjoys considerable autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework and China has long promised universal suffrage for the election of the next chief executive in 2017. But protesters are furious that rules announced by Beijing will impose such tight controls on candidates that a democrat could not even stand. They see the decision as part of a broader attempt to tighten controls on the region.
The non-violent civil disobedience movement was expected to start on Wednesday, a public holiday. But it kicked off over the weekend after students who had been running class boycotts invaded the government compound at Admiralty, which police had blocked off.
The organisers spent months planning Occupy Central with Love and Peace, but it has now taken on a life and perhaps a name of its own. Some dubbed it “the umbrella revolution” in reference to the umbrellas that have sprung up over protesters’ heads each time they fear a teargas or pepper spray attack. Demonstrators are also equipped with masks, and hardware stores said they had sold out of goggles.
“This is a watershed,” said Hung Ho-fung of Johns Hopkins University, noting that mass protests in the past had occurred with police approval.
“This time people are using civil disobedience and setting up barricades. There’s also the disruptive aspect; in the past, they emphasised that demonstrations would not affect everyday life. This time they really don’t care. I really haven’t seen anything like this in Hong Kong history.”
But, he warned: “Beijing has put itself in a corner and I don’t think it can back down. I think it’s out of Beijing’s expectations that Hong Kong people would be so persistent and so provoked by the decision.”
In previous cases where protests against Chinese government plans have led to those plans being dropped – such as 2012’s plans for compulsory “national education” – the decisions have formally been made by the Hong Kong leadership. This time, the framework for reforms was announced by the standing committee for Beijing’s National People’s Congress, meaning Beijing is explicitly tied to it and cannot portray a shift as a decision by the Hong Kong government.
Hung predicted that they would use loyalists to mobilise the counter-argument, with people warning of the need to prevent chaos.
“That might gain ground over time. But people see very clearly that the chaos has been created by the government’s use of force,” he said.
In some parts of the city, commuters cheered protesters. But Agence France-Presse reported that there were angry confrontations in Mong Kok between the activists and people annoyed by the disruption.
The Hong Kong dollar fell to a six-month low when trading opened, and shares slipped to a three-month low.
More schools have gone on strike – students had already announced that last week’s class boycott was now an indefinite campaign – and the government decided to close schools in the Central, Wanchai and Western districts. Several banks closed branches and around 200 bus routes were suspended, the South China Morning Post reported. Civil servants were sent home early.
The government has cancelled plans for the annual firework display to celebrate China’s national holiday on Wednesday, when a surge in mainland visitors is expected.
Coca-Cola transport workers went on strike in support of the protests, as did some social workers.
Officials say 41 people, including police officers, have been injured since protests began and 78 arrested for offences including forcible entry into government premises, unlawful assembly and obstructing police.
Occupy Central and others appear to be prioritising the demand to oust Leung, the highly unpopular chief executive. That seems a more achievable outcome than a rolling back of the electoral changes although, since the protests have taken on a momentum of their own, uniting all those on the streets could prove difficult.
In a statement, Occupy Central said Leung’s refusal to enter direct talks with people had driven Hong Kong into a crisis of disorder, which would be defused by his resignation.
Source: The Guardian