HONG KONG — The police in Hong Kong began tightening on Sunday a ring of security around thousands of pro-democracy protesters who have besieged the city government for three days. But by clearing the protesters and appeasing the Chinese Communist Party, the Hong Kong authorities could risk a bigger backlash from even more city residents, said experts.
The Hong Kong government has been grappling with how to defuse the sit-in protest that started on Friday night and stretched over the weekend, swelling at times to a crowd of tens of thousands. Although the police had been practicing for months to quell planned protests over election rule changes, they failed on Friday to prevent hundreds of students from charging into a forecourt at the city government headquarters, drawing many more supporters who occupied an avenue and open areas next to the fenced-in forecourt. The students inside the forecourt were dragged off by the police on Saturday, but the supporters outside have stayed.
On Sunday afternoon, the police began to seal off the sit-in area, stopping supporters from entering. The city leader, Leung Chun-ying, told a news conference that the protesters were using illegal methods to threaten the government, and he declared his “absolute trust in the professional judgment of the police.”
Vincent Yu/Associated Press
A surging youth protest movement in Hong Kong took the political initiative on Saturday, forcing the police to retreat for a second night and prompting the city’s most prominent democratic group to shift plans and join forces with the student activists in a campaign of defiance against the Chinese government’s planned election rules.
Several older politicians who support democracy in Hong Kong said the unexpected strength of the young protesters, who have besieged the city government headquarters since Friday night, suggested an emerging shift, as their generation ceded greater say to student activists who will be even less open to compromise with authoritarian Beijing.
“What happened since yesterday was beyond our expectation,” Albert Ho, 62, a prominent lawyer and Democratic Party member of Hong Kong’s legislature, said in an interview late on Saturday.
“Now the younger people have taken control and used their advantage of surprise,” Mr. Ho said in the middle of an exuberant rally attended by thousands of people, mostly teenagers and people in their 20s, in front of the city government offices. “This is something that will deeply concern the government.”
Adding to the sense of a shift in political influence to the young activists, Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy campaign, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, announced an abrupt change in its plans.
The campaign had said it would hold civil disobedience protests in the main financial district, known as Central, because election proposals issued by the Chinese government last month failed to offer authentic democratic choice for electing the city’s leader, or chief executive. But in the early hours of Sunday, Benny Tai, a co-founder of Occupy Central, announced that the student initiative would now be the spearhead for the group’s protests.
The student-led occupation at the city government headquarters “completely embodied the awakening of Hong Kong people’s desire to decide their own lives,” Occupy Central said in an emailed announcement.
“The courage of the students and members of the public in their spontaneous decision stay has touched many Hong Kong people,” it said. “As the wheel of time has reached this point, we have decided to arise and act.”
In an interview, Mr. Tai said his group was “very moved by the participation of the citizens which have been organized and initiated by the students,” and suggested that it might switch the site of its occupation to the student one.
“You have to respond to the changing situation of the society,” he said.
While the rest of the city went about its weekend as usual, the protesters turned an area next to the government buildings beside Victoria Harbor into a passionate but orderly stage to demand a say in electing the chief executive. The Chinese government last month laid down much narrower plans for electoral change, which would keep its power as a gatekeeper deciding who can run the city, a former British colony.
“We think that this place is ours, not the government’s,” said Will Mak Wing-kai, a student from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
香港中文大学的学生麦永启（Will Mak Wing-kai，音译）说，“我们认为这里是我们的，不是政府的。”
He said he was among 200 or so students who on Friday nightstormed into a forecourt near the entrance to the government headquarters, known to the demonstrators as Civic Square, which had recently been blocked off from the public.
“We want to see the Hong Kong people come out to protect their freedom and democracy,” Mr. Mak said, rapidly taking phone calls about organizing the swelling crowd. “I want the government to be representative, elected by us from our hearts, not by the Chinese government.” Under current electoral laws, the chief executive is selected by a committee dominated by Beijing loyalists.
On Saturday, the crowd veered from anger and jeering to an almost celebratory mood when number of officers thinned. Tensions rose again as darkness fell and the police regrouped across the square from metal barriers. But then the police retreated again, and crowds continued pouring into the protest area well into the early hours of Sunday.
Many in the crowd unfurled umbrellas, donned plastic raincoats and flimsy gauze masks, and put sheets of plastic wrap over their eyes, fearing that the police would use pepper spray, as they had on Friday night and Saturday morning. Some also wore yellow ribbons given out by the protest organizers as a symbol of hope for change. Seventy-four people have been arrested since the confrontation started on Friday, the police said.
Many protesters said the sight of the police squirting eye-searing pepper spray at the students on Friday night, shown on television news reports, galvanized support for protesters.
“Hong Kong people have a special feeling for our students,” said Chris Mok, a research assistant who attended the demonstration, “I decided to come down here this morning after I saw them pepper-spraying the students.”
In a society that reveres education, the students have drawn an outpouring of support from classmates and other residents, who sent bottled water, tissues and snacks, which by Saturday had accumulated into mountains of supplies. Some residents saw echoes of Beijing in 1989, when there was a surge of public support for students who occupied Tiananmen Square, before the protests were brutally suppressed.
“They are ready to pick up the democracy baton from the student movement in China in 1989,” said Sunny Lau, 57, who said he was pepper-sprayed by the police when he arrived to support the students. “Part of our success would be to put pressure on the Communist Party by getting the world’s attention.”
“他们已经准备好接过1989年学生运动的民主接力棒，”57岁的桑尼·刘（Sunny Lau，音译)说。“我们的成功将部分维系于，通过引起全世界的关注，给共产党施压。” 他还称，当他到达现场支持学生时，被警方喷了胡椒喷雾。
Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, it has kept its own independent courts and legal protections for free speech and assembly, as well as a robust civil society. But many democratic groups and politicians say the city’s freedoms are eroding under mainland China’s growing political and economic influence.
Beijing’s plan for electoral changes would for the first time let the public vote for the top leader, starting in 2017. But critics say the plan includes procedural hurdles would screen out candidates who do not have Beijing’s implicit blessing, making the vote meaningless.
“I don’t want Hong Kong to change to be like China, with corruption, unfairness, no press freedom, no religious freedom,” said Edith Fung, 21, a land surveying student.
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