October 25, 2021

Hong Kong Protesters Defy Officials’ Call to Disperse


HONG KONG — A wave of protest in Hong Kong that engulfed the city could continue into the week as thousands of residents defied a government call on Monday to abandon street blockades, students boycotted classes and the city’s influential bar association added its condemnation of a police crackdown on protesters.

The public resistance underscored the difficulties that the Hong Kong government faces in defusing widespread anger that erupted on Sunday after the police used tear gas, pepper spray and batons to break up a sit-in by students and other residents demanding democratic elections in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.

On Monday the Hong Kong government canceled the city’s annual fireworks show to mark China’s National Day, which falls on Wednesday, and government censors in Beijing ordered websites in mainland China to delete any mention of the unrest.

By evening, the crowds had swollen to greater numbers than the night before, when a police crackdown failed to dislodge protesters from a major thoroughfare in the heart of Hong Kong and appeared to have motivated more people to join the student-led protests. A government announcement that the riot police had been withdrawn from the protest centers also seemed to open the door to growing demonstrations.

“This morning I was happy to see that they stayed and insisted on continuing the protest,” said Cindy Sun, a 30-year-old bank worker who joined protesters during her lunch hour.

Ms. Sun said she thought the police response, especially the use of tear gas, was excessive. “The students were completely peaceful,” she said.

Many of the protesters were wearing surgical masks and goggles in anticipation of the police trying again to disperse them with tear gas or pepper spray.

“Yesterday, it was like a war. There were tear gas grenades everywhere,” said Eric Yeung, a geologist who marked his 28th birthday on Monday by joining the protests. “There’s another feeling tonight. It’s like a party. Emotions are high.”

Still, Mr. Yeung and other demonstrators expressed uncertainty about why the police had retreated, and whether they might try again to forcibly remove demonstrators.

On Tuesday, sit-ins continued at the main protest sites, with some demonstrators going home to rest and others arriving.

Hong Kong has maintained a reputation as a safe enclave for peaceful demonstration and commerce, and the crackdown here has raised the political cost of Beijing’s unyielding position on electoral change in Hong Kong. Late last month the National People’s Congress called for limits on voting reforms here and barriers for candidates for chief executive, the city’s top leadership post.

The protesters are seeking fully democratic elections for the city’s leader in 2017. But under China’s plan, only candidates vetted by a Beijing-friendly committee would be allowed to run.

Earlier Monday, the government said that it had pulled back the riot police from the areas where roads were being blocked. The government urged the demonstrators to end their sit-ins so that life in this busy commercial city could return to normal.

Leung Chun-ying, the city’s top leader, said the government opposes the “unlawful occupation actions by Occupy Central,” the name the pro-democracy movement has adopted, and called for “the various sectors of the community to engage in rational discussions through peaceful and lawful means.”

But many of the protesters said they were determined to stay until Mr. Leung resigned and the government answered their demands for democratic elections to choose his successor.

“Because the residents who have assembled on the roadways have largely returned to calm, the riot police have already withdrawn,” an unidentified spokesman for the government said in the statement Monday morning. The spokesman “urged the assembled residents to maintain calm and to peacefully disperse.”

At a news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Leung again called for an end to the protests.

The Hong Kong Bar Association condemned what it said had been “repeated, systematic, indiscriminate and excessive” use of tear gas against demonstrators.

An assistant police commissioner, Jacob Cheung Tak-keung, said at a news conference that officers had used a “minimal level of force” on Sunday after repeated warnings.

The police said Monday that 41 people had been injured in clashes over the previous three days, including 12 police officers.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, had been promised universal suffrage by 2017, when the city will have new elections for chief executive. The standoff between unarmed students and the riot police sets the stage for a possibly prolonged struggle that poses a test for President Xi Jinping of China, who has championed a harsh line against political threats to Communist Party rule.

“Probably about 10 years ago, Hong Kong was not so concerned about politics,” said Alison Fung, a magazine editor who said she had been at the sit-in since Sunday night. “But we want a more fair election so we can decide our own future. People feel that our opinions aren’t listened to.”

After a call Sunday by the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the organizations leading the protests, for an indefinite student strike, images of students holding gatherings at their schools in lieu of classes on Monday were posted on social media and shown in local news reports, but were blocked by censors in mainland China.

A commentary on the website of the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, claimed that the upheavals in Hong Kong were instigated by democratic radicals who had sought support from “anti-China forces” in Britain and the United States, and had sought lessons from independence activists in Taiwan.

On Monday, the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said that the United States government was monitoring the situation in Hong Kong and that the United States urges the city’s authorities “to exercise restraint and for protesters to express their views peacefully.”

“The United States supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong in accordance with the Basic Law,” Mr. Earnest said. “And we support the aspirations of the Hong Kong people.”

Beijing has bristled at any concern voiced by foreign governments about the tensions in Hong Kong, including Britain, whose treaty signed with China in 1984 set the conditions for Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. But on Monday, the British Foreign Office issued a statement saying, “Hong Kong’s prosperity and security are underpinned by its fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to demonstrate.”

Speaking at a regularly scheduled news conference Monday in Beijing, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, said, “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong,” and warned against interference, according to a statement posted on the ministry’s website.

“We hope related countries speak and act cautiously, don’t get involved in any way in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, don’t support the illegal activities of Occupy Central, and don’t send out any wrong signals,” Ms. Hua said.