Riot police arrested scores of students who stormed the Hong Kong government headquarters compound yesterday after a night of scuffles to protest at China’s refusal to allow genuine democratic reforms in the semi-autonomous city.
More than 100 other protesters, however, showed no sign of leaving the area surrounding the square where the government complex is located, and chanted at police to stop arresting their comrades.
The dispersal followed a night of trouble on Friday between police and about 150 protesters who forced their way into the government compound, some scaling a tall fence. Police discharged pepper spray to push them back, but about 50 had remained inside the gated premises. At least 29 people have been injured since Friday night, police said.
Many protesters used umbrellas to shield their faces from pepper spray, while those who got hit used water to rinse their eyes and carry on.
“I paid my highest respect to every soldier who defends till the last moment… civil disobedience, it continues to happen,” student leader Lester Shum said on his Facebook page.
Hong Kong security minister Lai Tung-kwok told reporters officers acted appropriately and gave students sufficient warning before starting to clear the square.
The scuffles came after a week-long strike by students demanding China’s Communist Party leaders organise democratic elections in 2017.
Tensions over Hong Kong’s political future have risen significantly since control of the former British colony passed to China in 1997.
The city-state is run under a formula known as “one country, two systems”, with a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China.
China’s leaders have promised universal suffrage for the city, but last month ruled out letting the public nominate candidates.
Instead they insist candidates are screened by a committee of Beijing loyalists.
Hong Kong’s young people have become vocal supporters of full democracy in recent years, fuelled by anger over widening inequality.
Thousands of university and college students who had spent the week boycotting classes were joined on Friday by a smaller group of high school students.
Organisers said those arrested at government headquarters included Joshua Wong, who at just 17 is the leader of the activist group Scholarism.
He was dragged away by four officers, screaming and bleeding from one arm, eyewitnesses said.
Wong, a recent high school graduate, gained prominence two years ago after he organised protests that forced the Hong Kong government to back off plans to introduce a Chinese national education curriculum that some feared was a form of brainwashing.
“Hong Kong’s future belongs to you, you and you,” Wong, a thin teenager wearing dark-rimmed glasses and bowl-cut hair, told cheering supporters before he was taken away.
“I want to tell CY Leung and Xi Jinping that the mission of fighting for universal suffrage does not rest upon the young people, it is everyone’s responsibility,” he shouted, referring to Hong Kong’s and China’s leaders.
“I don’t want the fight for democracy to be passed down to the next generation. This is our responsibility.”
Yvonne Leung, president of the University of Hong Kong students’ union, said: “Our movement is peaceful and does not use aggression.
“Students who decided to storm inside [the government complex] knew about their legal responsibility.”
The student protest was organised independently of Occupy Central, an alliance of pro-democracy activists planning to blockade Hong Kong’s financial district to call for genuine democratic reforms.
Yesterday, several Occupy Central members joined students protesting outside the square. Benny Tai, a key leader of the movement, told reporters that the group would “stay with the students until the end and risk getting arrested ourselves.”
Tai criticised the amount of force police used on students.
Occupy Central has hinted that its full blockade will begin on Wednesday, China’s National Day holiday.