Hong Kong Student Leaders Arrested as Police Try to Clear Protest Zone
Hong Kong police arrested two high-profile student leaders on Wednesday morning, pro-democracy demonstrators said as scuffles broke out during police attempts to clear one of the zones held by protesters.
Joshua Wong and Lester Shum, whose detention was reported by the Hong Kong Students Federation and the South China Morning Post, came after a night of clashes with police in the Mong Kok neighborhood.
A total of 116 people were being held for offences including unlawful assembly and assaulting or obstructing police. Officers used pepper spray as they tried to disperse crowds, although many protesters remained in the area despite the clearance attempt.
Eighteen-year-old Wong became the face of the movement following his earlier arrest at Admiralty at the very beginning of the pro-democracy protests, as some voiced unhappiness about Beijing’s restrictions on who is eligible to stand as the territory’s next chief executive in 2017.
That detention sparked a backlash which brought thousands more onto the streets, giving unexpected momentum to the demonstrations and ended when a court ruled that police should release him because they had held him an unreasonably long time.
A photograph posted on the Facebook page of Wong’s Scholarism group on Wednesday showed Wong bent double, with his hands behind his back, between two policemen apparently walking him away.
The pro-democracy protests, which began almost two months ago, have been overwhelming peaceful. But local media said 4,000 police were on standby to help impose a court order for the clearance of streets in Mong Kok this week. The area has seen several flare-ups between protesters, unidentified opponents – at least some of who have had links to organised crime – and police.
Police said that one man was arrested for possessing offensive weapons including an axe, hammer and crowbar and that nine officers were hurt in the scuffles.
On Tuesday night hundreds more people surged into the area after a 50-metre section of the protest zone, along Argyle Street, was removed, allowing traffic to flow freely for the first time in weeks.
On Wednesday tensions rose again as police oversaw the clearance of the rest of the protest area, a 200-metre patch of Nathan Road, while protesters in masks and helmets sought to stand their ground.
The disputed area is one of three sites held by the pro-democracy protesters. Most of the main protest zone at Admiralty remains, although a small patch was cleared last week and protesters still hold a third site at Causeway Bay.
On Wednesday morning, people wearing red baseball caps and T-shirts that said “I (heart) HK” helped dismantle a first row of barricades made up mostly of wooden pallets, after bailiffs announced they would start enforcing the court order.
It was unclear who the workers were and some protesters feared they were made up of groups opposed to the demonstrations.
Police officers in helmets then stepped in, helping to clear further rows of metal barricades before tents, canopies and other obstructions – including a sofa – were torn down and carried away. Hundreds more officers advanced slowly along the street.
In a statement released early in the morning, police urged those assembled unlawfully to leave immediately and not block the roads or charge police. It said journalists should also take care of their personal safety.
The statement said: “Police also appeal to the public, in particular students, not to go to the above areas to avoid unnecessary injuries. They should not mix with the radicals and troublemakers and be incited or used by others to commit any illegal acts.”
Several reporters at the scene described being shoved and manhandled by hostile police.
Public support for the protesters has declined sharply since the peak of the demonstrations, when tens of thousands took to the streets, angered by the use of tear gas by police. Last week a survey of 513 people by Hong Kong University researchers found that more than 80% said protesters should withdraw. A survey of 1,030 people, released a few days earlier by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, found two-thirds of respondents wanted occupiers to leave.
But neither the demonstrators nor authorities have shown any willingness to compromise. Protesters want Beijing to lift its tight restrictions on nominations for the next chief executive in 2017, saying otherwise an election will offer no real choice. Beijing argues that offering Hong Kong residents universal suffrage is in itself a step forward.
“I haven’t completely closed the door on negotiations with the Hong Kong Federation of Students,” the city’s second-highest official, chief secretary Carrie Lam, told reporters on Tuesday during a trip in Beijing.
Divisions have also emerged in the movement, with some occupiers keen to stand down and more radical elements insisting they should stand their ground.