Hong Kong police have arrested more than 500 people who refused to leave a street in the financial district, a day after tens of thousands joined a march to demand democracy free from China’s interference.
The march has become an annual affair held on the anniversary of the day China took over Hong Kong from Britain – 1 July, 1997 – with a promise to give the city a high degree of autonomy for 50 years.
But there is growing unease among its residents, especially young people, that their western-style civil liberties are being eroded as Beijing increasingly tries to impose its authority over the capitalist enclave.
The fears are only going to be heightened following the pre-dawn crackdown by the Hong Kong police – who normally do not have an antagonistic relationship with the public, unlike the security forces in mainland China.
Police said 511 people were arrested for unlawful assembly in the central business district and preventing police from carrying out their duties.
After warnings failed to dislodge them, police moved in to remove the protesters, who lay on the street with arms locked.
The protesters had vowed to stay until 8am, just before the height of rush hour, but the police started moving in to evict them one by one at around 3am.
Some left willingly, but others were forcibly removed.
Those arrested were mostly students who had occupied Chater Road after taking part in Tuesday’s rally, which police said attracted 98,000 people at its peak.
Organisers said 510,000 people turned out, the highest estimates in a decade, though Hong Kong researchers put the number at 172,000 at most.
The steady throng of people walked through a broad boulevard lined with skyscrapers and made their way to the financial district.
The march and the vehemence of opposition will raise the alarm in Beijing, which tried to keep the news away from people in mainland China.
The Chinese media, predictably, did not report on the march and comments about the protests were deleted from blogs and other social media.
One Hong Kong protester, Kennie Chan, lamented that Beijing was less restrained now in exerting its influence over Hong Kong.
The 30-year-old said: “In the past, it seemed like they were doing it step by step, but now it’s obvious that they cannot stand Hong Kong people.
“We are not obedient anymore, and are resisting more and more.”
Much of the protest centres on elections in three years’ time.
China’s Communist Party leaders have pledged to allow Hong Kong residents to vote for the leader by 2017.
However, they have rejected calls to allow the public to name candidates – insisting that they be vetted by a Beijing-friendly committee, such as the one that has picked all leaders since the handover.
Three weeks ago, the Chinese government released a white paper that said Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is not inherent but is authorised by the central government in Beijing.
Protester Jeff Kwok, 28, said: “After seeing the white paper’s content, we should be worried.”
Beijing is “saying that Hong Kong is just one of their regions. They’re trying to tell us they have absolute power to rule us”, he said.
The protest comes days after nearly 800,000 residents voted in an informal referendum aimed at bolstering support for full democracy.
Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, tried to soothe tensions, saying he would do his “utmost to forge a consensus” on implementing universal suffrage on schedule.
But the government later released a statement saying it is unlikely that public nominations will be allowed as it is legally “highly controversial”.