HONG KONG — Pushing and yelling, hundreds of Hong Kong residents tried to force pro-democracy activists from the streets they were occupying Oct. 4th as tensions rose in the weeklong protests that have shut down parts of the city.
The scuffles in Kowloon’s crowded Mong Kok district, one of several areas where protesters have camped out, were the most chaotic since police used tear gas and pepper spray last weekend to try to disperse protesters pushing for greater electoral reforms for the territory.
Police were hard-pressed to keep order as the two sides tussled in a tense standoff. The visibly older people trying to force out the vastly outnumbered younger protesters were yelling, shoving and at times trying to drag them away.
The protesters, led by university students, said that if authorities did not act to protect the unarmed, peaceful demonstrators, they would retract an agreement to hold talks with the city government as proposed by Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
“Stop the violence or we call off the talks,” the groups of students and other activists said in a statement.
The democracy activists linked arms and held hands as they tried to stand their ground against the huge crowd. Police formed cordons and escorted some of the protesters away as hundreds of onlookers chanted, “Go home!”
In Causeway Bay, another area occupied by protesters, groups of young men in face masks were forced away from the protesters by police.
Police spokesman Steve Hui appealed to the members of the public to “observe the laws of Hong Kong when they are expressing their views.”
The protesters have been in the streets since Sept. 26th, pushing for the Chinese government to reverse its recent decision requiring a mostly pro-Beijing committee approve candidates for Hong Kong’s first election to choose the territory’s leader in 2017. The demonstrators want open nominations.
The demonstrations are the biggest challenge to Beijing’s authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.
Hong Kong’s top civil servant, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, said she had begun organizing the talks with the protesters, who have continued their sit-ins after Leung rejected their calls to resign. “I am indeed very concerned about the clashes we have seen in the streets,” Lam said.
“Sentiments are running high and there is a high chance of conflict on the streets,” she said. “So I am urging protesters who have been occupying parts of the territory to consider retreating … so that the police can restore law and order.”
Benny Tai, leader of the broader pro-democracy movement Occupy Central With Love and Peace issued a public call for all protesters to shift back to the Admiralty area, near the government headquarters, where they began their protests last weekend. He said the group was confident they could guarantee the protesters’ safety if they moved back to that area.
Student protesters had threatened to surround or occupy government buildings if Leung, the city’s chief executive, did not step down by Oct. 3d, and police had warned of serious consequences if they did that. Late Oct. 3d, Leung held a news conference to offer the talks, but said “I will not resign.”
A front-page editorial Friday in the People’s Daily newspaper, published by China’s ruling Communist Party, underlined the leadership’s unwillingness to negotiate changes to its August decision.
Some who are sympathetic to the protesters’ demands for wider political reforms complained the police were not doing enough to protect the demonstrators.
“We saw people with no uniforms in Causeway Bay and Mong Kok attack protesters and take away their belongings,” said Cyd Ho, Vice-Chairwoman of the Labor Party.
“Police have the duty to safeguard peaceful demonstrations by Hong Kong citizens,” Ho said. “If police do not intervene this sets a dangerous precedent … that if people are unhappy with protesters they can attack them with impunity.”
But some residents complained that the protests were disrupting their lives and hurting their livelihoods.
“It affected my company, a perfume business, to deliver goods in the area,” said Ken Lai in the bustling Causeway Bay neighborhood. “I really dislike the fact that they occupied so many areas, all scattered around the city. I’m a Hong Konger too. The occupiers don’t represent all of us.”
By Kelvin Chan. AP writers Joanna Chiu, Wendy Tang and Elaine Kurtenbach contributed to this report