TENS of thousands of pro-democracy protesters defied tear gas and police baton charges in Hong Kong’s financial hub yesterday in one of the biggest political challenges for China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago.
Beijing made clear it would not tolerate dissent, and warned against foreign interference as thousands of protesters massed for a fourth night in the city.
The unrest, the worst in Hong Kong since China resumed its rule in the former British colony in 1997, sent clouds of gas wafting among office towers before riot police suddenly withdrew at around lunchtime yesterday.
Tens of thousands of mostly student protesters are demanding full democracy and have called on city leader Leung Chun-ying to step down.
China rules Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” formula that accords the territory only a degree of democracy. “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
As riot police withdrew, weary protesters slept at the roadside or sheltered from the sun beneath umbrellas, which have become a symbol of what some call the “Umbrella Revolution”, as they have been used as shields against pepper spray.
Nicola Cheung, an 18-year-old student from Baptist University, said the protesters in central Admiralty district were now planning what to do next.
“Yes, it’s going to get violent again because the Hong Kong government isn’t going to stand for us occupying this area,” she said. “We are fighting for our core values of democracy and freedom, and that is not something violence can scare us away from.”
Organisers claim as many as 80,000 people have thronged the streets after protests flared on Friday night.
The protests, with no single identifiable leader, have brought together a mass movement of mostly tech-savvy students who have grown up with freedoms not enjoyed on mainland China.
Beijing’s dilemma is that cracking down too hard could shake confidence in market-driven Hong Kong, while not reacting firmly enough could embolden dissidents on the mainland.
The protests are expected to escalate tomorrow, China’s National Day holiday, where residents of the nearby enclave of Macau are planning a rally. Pro-democracy supporters from other countries are also expected to protest, causing Beijing further embarrassment.
Such dissent would not be tolerated on the mainland, where the phrase “Occupy Central” was blocked on Sunday on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
Protesters want open nominations for candidates for 2017 leadership election after China’s rubber-stamp parliament endorsed a framework on 31 August that ensured only pro- Beijing candidates.
Televised scenes of the chaos in Hong Kong made a deep impression outside of Hong Kong, especially in Taiwan, which has full democracy but is considered by China to be a renegade province that must one day be reunited with the Communist mainland. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said Beijing needed “to listen carefully to the demands of the Hong Kong people”.
The US Consulate General in Hong Kong issued a statement calling for all sides to “refrain from actions that would further escalate tensions”.
Spokeswoman Hua said Beijing noted statements expressed by countries such as the US. “We hope that the relevant country will be cautious on this issue and not send the wrong signal,” she said.
“We are resolutely opposed to any foreign country using any method to interfere in China’s internal affairs. We are also resolutely opposed to any country, attempting in any way to support such illegal activities like ‘Occupy Central’.”
“We are fully confident in the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, because I believe this is in keeping with the interests of all the people in China, the region and the world,” she said.
Hong Kong has cancelled the city’s fireworks display over the harbour, meant to mark the holiday, while the US, Australia and Singapore issued travel alerts.