HK cops resort to tear gas to quell protests
TENS of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators brought parts of central Hong Kong to a standstill yesterday, in a dramatic escalation of protests that have gripped the semi-autonomous Chinese city for days.
Police responded by using pepper spray and when that did little to quell the trouble, they fired tear gas, which is rare in Hong Kong.
There were chaotic scenes, with scuffles breaking out between the police and protesters, and the demonstrators screaming "Shame!" at police officers as they tried to shield themselves from the clouds of gas, AFP reporters said.
The police had initially used handheld pepper spray on the demonstrators, who had spilt onto a major multi-lane highway after breaking through barricades set up to stop people swelling the crowds camped outside Hong Kong's government headquarters since Friday.
Traffic ground to a halt along busy Connaught Road, with the police forced to retreat as protesters rushed towards the crowds outside the government headquarters on the other side. They cheered and embraced each other in the middle of the road, a major city artery usually filled with whizzing taxis and buses.
China, which stations a military garrison in Hong Kong, said it was confident the city's administration could handle the protests.
The extraordinary scenes came at the climax of a week of student-led action against China's refusal to grant full democracy to the former British colony.
Beijing said that while it would allow elections for Hong Kong's leader in 2017, it would insist on vetting the candidates.
Students have boycotted classes in the past week, while the increasingly tense protests have also seen them mob the city's leader and storm into the government headquarters complex.
Prominent pro-democracy group Occupy Central threw its weight behind the protests yesterday, saying it was bringing forward a mass civil disobedience campaign that had been due to start on Wednesday.
"Occupy Central starts now," Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai told the crowds outside the government headquarters.
"This is a new age, a new era of disobedience," he said in an interview from the protest site.
Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying, told a press conference his administration was "resolute in opposing the unlawful occupation actions by Occupy Central", branding its activities illegal as they were designed to paralyse the city of seven million.
He said his government would hold more public consultations on the planned political changes - a move already scheduled before the protests.
Ryan Chung, a 19-year-old student watching events unfold, said: "We have the right to stay here and to protest. The world needs to know what is happening in Hong Kong. They need to know we want democracy but don't have it."
Political analyst Sonny Lo said the protests marked a turning point in the city's long campaign for democracy.
"From now on, there will be more confrontation, possibly violent ones between citizens and the police," he told AFP.
But he added that with Beijing maintaining a hardline stance, it was difficult to see a way out of the stand-off.
"The government needs to handle the students very carefully - any mishandling will spark larger acts of civil disobedience," he said.