VIOLENT clashes erupted in Hong Kong in the early hours of yesterday morning for a second day, deepening a sense of impasse between a government with limited options and a pro-democracy movement increasingly willing to confront police.
The worst political crisis in Hong Kong since Britain handed the free-wheeling capitalist city back to China in 1997 entered its fourth week with no sign of a resolution, despite talks scheduled on Tuesday between the government and student protest leaders.
Beijing has signalled through Hong Kong’s leaders that it is not willing to reverse a decision in August that effectively denies the financial hub the full democracy which protesters are demanding.
“Unless there is some kind of breakthrough in two hours of talks on Tuesday, I’m worried we will see the standoff worsen and get violent,” Sonny Lo, a professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said.
“We could be entering a new and much more problematic stage. I hope the government has worked out some compromises, because things could get very difficult now.”
Hong Kong’s 28,000-strong police force has struggled to contain a youth-led movement that has shown little sign of waning after three weeks of standoffs. Demonstrators in the Mong Kok district launched a fresh assault early yesterday morning, putting on helmets and goggles before surging forward to grab a line of metal barricades hemming them into a section of road.
Hundreds of police officers hit out at a wall of umbrellas that protesters raised to fend off police pepper spray.
Protesters screamed and hurled insults and violent scuffles erupted before police surged forward with riot shields, forcing the protesters back.
One activist with goggles on was hit with a flurry of baton blows, leaving him bleeding from a gash in the head. Several protesters were taken away.
Senior policeman at the scene Paul Renouf said that up to 500 officers were deployed to force the crowds about 20 metres back from their original position near an intersection.
Dozens of people were reportedly injured in the two nights of clashes, including 22 police officers. Four people were arrested yesterday, police said.
The clashes came hours after Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, Leung Chun-ying, called for the talks on Tuesday, which will be broadcast live.
The protesters, led by a restive generation of students, have been demanding China’s Communist Party rulers live up to constitutional promises to grant full democracy to the former British trading outpost.
Hong Kong is ruled under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows it wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms and specifies universal suffrage for Hong Kong as an eventual goal.
But Beijing is wary about copycat demands for reform on the mainland and it ruled on 31 August that it would screen candidates who want to run for the city’s chief executive in 2017. Democracy activists said that rendered the universal suffrage concept meaningless and are demanding free elections.
Mr Leung appears hamstrung, unable to compromise because of the message that would send to people on the mainland, while more force looks likely to only galvanise the young protesters. Hong Kong’s security chief, Lai Tung-kwok, said some of the clashes in recent days had been initiated by activists affiliated to “radical organisations which have been active in conspiring, planning and charging violent acts”.
The city’s embattled police chief, Andy Tsang, also expressed his frustration when he broke three weeks of silence on Saturday to say “extremely tolerant” policing had not stopped protests becoming more “radical or violent”.
The protests pose one of the biggest challenges for China since the crushing of a pro- democracy movement in Beijing in 1989. The situation in Hong Kong surfaced in weekend talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi in Boston.
A senior State Department official said Hong Kong was discussed as part of “candid exchanges” on human rights, while a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said Mr Yang had told Mr Kerry that no country should interfere in Hong Kong as it was “purely an internal affair of China”.