HONG KONG (Reuters) – Violent scuffles broke out in one of Hong Kong’s most famous and congested shopping districts on Friday, as hundreds of supporters of Chinese rule stormed tents and ripped down banners belonging to pro-democracy protesters, forcing many to retreat.
As news of the confrontation spread, more protesters headed for the gritty, bustling district of Mong Kok, considered one of the most crowded places on Earth, to reinforce.
Tens of thousands have taken to Hong Kong’s streets in the past week to demand full democracy in the former British colony, including a free voting system when they come to choose a new leader in 2017.
Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying agreed to open talks with pro-democracy protesters but defied demands that he resign. He and his Chinese government backers made clear they would not back down in the face of the city’s worst unrest in decades.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the main groups behind the protest movement, accused the government and police of conspiring to provoke attacks on protesters in Mong Kok, and threatened to pull out of planned talks.
Numbers dwindled at some other protest sites in and around the Central financial district as rain fell on Friday and as Hong Kong people returned to work after a two-day holiday.
However, crowds built up again from hundreds to thousands late at night in the Admiralty district, where government offices are concentrated.
In Mong Kok, where notorious Triad criminal gangs operate bars, nightclubs and massage parlours in high-rise apartment blocks packed together, about 1,000 Beijing supporters clashed with around 100 protesters, spitting and throwing water bottles in a side-show to the main protests.
Police formed a human chain to separate the two groups amid the wail of sirens. Hong Kong’s RTHK radio station reported that 131 people had been taken to hospital on Friday with injuries of varying severity sustained during protests across the city.
Some demonstrators held umbrellas for police in the rain, while others shouted at police for failing to clear the demonstrators.
“We are all fed up and our lives are affected,” said teacher Victor Ma, 42. “You don’t hold Hong Kong citizens hostage because it’s not going to work. That’s why the crowd is very angry here.”
POLICE DEFEND ACTIONS
The police defended their handling of the clashes, during which protesters also accused them of doing too little to protect them.
“During the process, we still maintained our dignity and restraint and tried our best to keep the situation under control,” a policeman spokesman told a news conference.
Paul Renouf, a senior police officer in Mong Kok, said there were no immediate plans to force people to leave the area, and added: “It’s a little bit calmer now, but it is a tinder box situation.”
Mong Kok is popular with visitors from the mainland but not as well known to Western tourists as the luxury shopping area of Causeway Bay, on the island of Hong Kong, where pedestrians were trying to remove barricades put up by Occupy protesters.
A female student protester wept on the street as she tried to protect the barricades.
“Is this really Hong Kong?” she asked. “Why has Hong Kong become like this?”
Police have warned repeatedly of serious consequences if demonstrators try to block off or occupy government buildings in and around Central.
“The behaviour of these protesters is illegal, extremely unreasonable and inhumane, and is even worse than that of radical social activists and almost complete anarchy,” the Hong Kong government said in a statement, adding that people gathering in Mong Kok should leave.
Chief Executive Leung told reporters just minutes before the ultimatum for him to step down expired at midnight on Thursday that Chief Secretary Carrie Lam would meet students soon to discuss political reforms, but gave no timeframe.
“NEED TO WORK”
Lam on Friday urged protesters to go home.
“Sentiments are running high because of the prolonged strike, which leads to a higher chance of conflict,” she said.
Lam later added that the government was trying to fix a meeting with protest leaders “as soon as possible”.
The demonstrations have ebbed and flowed since Sunday, when police used pepper spray, tear gas and baton charges to break them up. The unrest is the worst in Hong Kong since the former British colony was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997.
China rules Hong Kong through a “one country, two systems” formula underpinned by the Basic Law, which accords Hong Kong some autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland and has universal suffrage as an eventual goal.
But Beijing decreed on Aug. 31 it would vet candidates who want to run for chief executive at an election in 2017, angering democracy activists who took to the streets.
While Leung made an apparent concession by offering talks, Beijing restated its resolute opposition to the protests and a completely free vote in Hong Kong.
Beijing, facing separatist unrest in far-flung and resource-rich Tibet and Xinjiang, is unlikely to give way in Hong Kong, fearful that calls for democracy there, especially if successful, will spread to the mainland.
Signs were emerging of tension between the protesters, many of them students, and government employees.
“I need to go to work. I’m a cleaner. Why do you have to block me from going to work?” said one woman as she quarrelled with protesters. “You don’t need to earn a living, but I do.”
Some protesters suspect authorities are trying to buy time with their offer of talks to wait for numbers to dwindle.
“I hope the chief executive can stop siding with Beijing and do one thing for Hong Kong people,” Martin Lee, founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, told protesters.
“He should go to Beijing and say ‘I cannot really continue to run this place unless you give Hong Kong people what they deserve and what you have promised’.”
The protests have been an amalgam of students, activists from the Occupy movement and ordinary Hong Kongers. They have come together under the banner of the “Umbrella Revolution”, so- called because many of them used umbrellas to ward off pepper spray used by police on Sunday.
The Occupy movement presents one of the biggest political challenges for Beijing since it violently crushed pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Hong Kong’s benchmark share index, the Hang Seng .HSI, plunged 7.3 percent in September, in part because of the uncertainty surrounding the protests. It was down 2.6 percent on the week on Friday.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Campbell, Charlie Zhu, Donny Kwok, James Pomfret, Bobby Yip, Irene Jay Liu, Farah Master, Diana Chan, Clare Baldwin, Kinling Lo, Diana Chan and Jason Subler in HONG KONG; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Mike Collett-White)