Hong Kong’s most prominent tycoon, Li Ka-shing, yesterday urged protesters who have occupied parts of the city since late last month to go home, after police mounted their toughest action against the democracy activists in more than a week.
Police arrested about 45 protesters yesterday morning, using pepper spray against those who resisted, as they cleared a main road in the Chinese-controlled city that protesters had blocked with concrete slabs.
But footage posted online of police beating a protester went viral, sparking outrage from some law officials and the public, who warned their actions may have encouraged more protesters to return to the dwindling protest site. Authorities said any police involved would be suspended.
Outrage over the beating could galvanise support for the democracy movement in the city where the protests over Chinese restrictions on how it chooses its next leader had fallen from about 100,000 at their peak to a few hundred.
The protesters are also calling for Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, Leung Chun-ying, to step down. But their campaign has caused traffic chaos and drained public support.
Mr Li, Asia’s richest man and chairman of property developer Cheung Kong, said that if Hong Kong’s rule of law broke down it would be the city’s “greatest sorrow”. “Since the handover, the ‘one country, two system’ formula has protected Hong Kong’s lifestyle,” he said, referring to the formula under which the city has been run since its return from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
“I urge everyone not to be agitated. I urge everyone not to let today’s passion become the regret for tomorrow. I earnestly request everyone to return to their families,” he said in his first public comments on the protests.
“One country, two systems” allows wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland and specifies universal suffrage for Hong Kong as an eventual goal. But on 31 August, Beijing ruled it would screen candidates who wish to run for the post of city chief executive in 2017, which democracy activists said rendered the universal suffrage concept meaningless.
Mr Leung said this week there was “zero chance” China’s leaders would give in to demands and change the August decision.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain should stand up for the rights of Hong Kongers as it was important they could enjoy the freedoms and rights set out in the agreement with China before Britain handed back Hong Kong.
Earlier, Hong Kong secretary for security Lai Tung-kwok told a news conference that police would investigate the beating of the protester, who was dragged into a dark corner next to the site which police were trying to clear.
Several officers appeared to beat and kick the handcuffed man for several minutes in footage broadcast by station TVB.
Alan Leong, leader of the pro-democracy Civic Party, identified the man in the video as party member Ken Tsang Kin-chiu. Civic assembly man Dennis Kwok, a lawyer for Mr Tsang, said officers also beat him in a police station.
Mr Tsang was later taken to hospital, he said, and activists released photographs showing bruising on his face and body.
Police, without referring to Mr Tsang, said they had used minimum force, including pepper spray, to disperse an illegal gathering. The situation remained calm for the rest of yesterday. More than 100 people marched to police HQ, near the main protest site, to condemn the beating of Mr Tsang.