For the second day in a row, police on Wednesday clashed with protesters as work crews began dismantling barricades on a main road in Hong Kong’s scruffy Mong Kok district.
The crews set to work at about 9 a.m. on a large encampment under a court order to unblock the streets, which have been obstructed by pro-democracy demonstrators for nearly two months. Police in riot gear came behind them, pushing aside protesters who resisted or questioned the legality of removing people’s possession from the encampment.
The move on the Nathan Road protest site was far larger than the operation police had attempted the previous day on Argyle Street when they used pepper spray to try to dislodge protesters, only to see their tough tactics trigger hundreds more to rally to the demonstrators’ cause and take to the streets.
Some 7,000 police took part in Tuesday’s operation, at least nine of whom were injured. Police said more than 80 people were arrested, including a man who was carrying an ax, iron hammer and crowbar.
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Police appealed for students not to come to Mong Kok and join the street occupations. “They should not mix with the radicals and troublemakers and be incited or used by others to commit any illegal acts,” the police said in a statement.
Tuesday’s confrontations were broadcast live in Hong Kong on the 58th day of the city’s unprecedented protests, and the resistance seen Wednesday was unsurprising. Several hard-core occupiers had said they were ready for whatever happens, even if they get injured or end up in jail.
“I am ready to be arrested,” said James Cheng, 22, who has been camping on a Mong Kok street for the last month. “Everyone who comes out here accepts that. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be here.”
Tuesday’s street clearing, announced in advance, started out relatively peacefully on a lone block in Mong Kok, a densely populated, blue-collar neighborhood miles from the core protests in downtown Hong Kong.
Court bailiffs, acting on a court order sought by a bus company, instructed crews in white helmets to remove barricades blocking Argyle Street. Protesters, while shouting slogans, did not obstruct them. Police looked on.
As the afternoon wore on, the atmosphere became more and more tense. Black-clad protesters sat down in the street, while blue-clad counterprotesters yelled at them from the crowded sidewalks. Two student leaders stood on a platform of pallets and demanded the bailiffs explain why so many police were there.
Police soon got directly involved, slamming protesters to the ground and carrying them and others away.
Police reopened Argyle Street to traffic by 4 p.m. But in doing so, they pushed protesters in front of the lavish Langham Place mall, frequented each day by thousands of tourists, mostly from mainland China. That resulted in a surreal scene of Chinese shoppers taking photos of pro-democracy protesters confronting police, while they stood safely behind glass windows of the mall listening to “Jingle Bells” and other Christmas Muzak.
Soon after, police – many dressed in riot gear – unfurled familiar banners that read, “Stop charging, or we use force.” Less familiar was the weapon they then deployed – a hand-pumped water blaster filled with stinging liquid. It was not immediately known what was in the liquid, but doused protesters said it felt like diluted pepper spray. “Tear water” was how they described it.
Images of the pepper-spray blasters went viral, leading to calls by student groups for help.
“More support urgently needed in Mong Kok,” read a message sent out on Twitter by the Hong Kong Federation of Students. “Bring helmets, goggles, shields, umbrellas, towels & be careful!”
By 10 p.m., protesters on Nathan Road could be seen building up their barricades, ready for the clearing operation that began Wednesday morning. A McClatchy reporter saw numerous protesters injured and carried away by paramedics and protesters, but numbers were not immediately available.
Albert Chan, a legislator and a pro-democracy leader who was in the middle of the scrum, said he thought bailiffs and police did a good job on Argyle Street – until midafternoon. “Unfortunately, a few police officers were uncontrollable,” he said, and after that, the situation deteriorated.
Chan said it could take days for authorities to safely carry out the court’s orders and clear a much larger number of tents and protesters occupying nearby Nathan Road.
For nearly two months, students and other Hong Kong residents have occupied streets in three separate parts of Hong Kong. They are pushing back against Beijing’s control of their election process, including selection of a chief executive in 2017.
Initially, the street occupations drew tens of thousands of supporters and drew international attention. But the momentum has waned partly because of splits among the protesters and frustration from Hong Kong businesses and residents over how long the protests have dragged on.
As Tuesday’s events revealed, China and Hong Kong authorities also are struggling with tactics. Beijing clearly doesn’t want to unleash the kind of force that would draw comparisons with the crackdown on young protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Yet the longer the protests continue, the more the chance they will draw sympathizers and trigger dissent on the mainland.
In a press conference with President Barack Obama earlier this month in Beijing, China’s President Xi Jinping forcefully denounced what he called the “illegal” Hong Kong protests, using the same language as the semi-autonomous region’s embattled chief executive, C.Y. Leung, also known as Leung Chun-ying.
In the last two weeks, China has also blocked student leaders and other Hong Kong residents videotaped at the protests from entering the mainland. On Tuesday, Hong Kong and British news outlets revealed that China had denied a visa to a Conservative member of the British Parliament, Peter Mandelson, because he’d led a debate on the Hong Kong protests.
The visa denial prompted a group of British parliamentarians this week to cancel a planned three-day visit to Shanghai that was to start Tuesday. It also drew a response from Britain’s Foreign Office, according to the Guardian news site.
“The UK-China Leadership Forum has an important role in UK/China relations,” said the Foreign Office. “We have raised this with the Chinese government and sought an explanation of their decision to deny a visa.”
Ironically, the visa denial comes as Hong Kong protesters are unleashing their frustrations on Great Britain, which turned Hong Kong over to China in 1997. In recent days, several dozen protesters have rallied outside the British consulate here. They argue that the United Kingdom hasn’t pressed Beijing enough to honor a 1984 agreement that promised Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy.”