By Joanna Chiu with reporting from Erin Hale, dpa
Hong Kong (dpa) – Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong said Monday they would continue their occupation of key parts of the metropolis, despite warnings from officials to clear out after a night of police using pepper spray and tear gas to try to disperse the crowds.
“I’m not afraid [of police using more force] because Hong Kong has many people who have the heart to protect our city and our freedom,” protester Andrew Ngang, 18, told dpa.
The ante has progressively been upped in recent weeks in the former British colony that has enjoyed special rights since being reabsorbed by China in 1997, ever since China effectively slammed the door shut on a long-mandated move to democratic elections in the city.
The stand-off has come to a head after a week of students boycotting classes to demand democracy. And the movement got a name Monday – the Umbrella Revolution – as demonstrators took the umbrellas they used to protect themselves from tear gas overnight to ward off the sweltering sun as they continued their sit-in throughout the day.
Occupy Central, a group of pro-democracy activists, boosted the protests Sunday when it joined on to the student protest. It estimated that as many as 100,000 people participated.
The group said Monday that it supported the “spontaneous movement of the Hong Kong people.”
“We were down to a few hundred of us, and then we saw thousands of people block traffic on Harcourt Road to join protesters. This went beyond our imaginations,” Occupy Central organizer Eddie Chung told dpa.
The demonstrators demanded the resignation of the city’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, and called on other officials to “stand with the people.”
On a major roadway outside government headquarters Monday evening, protesters dressed in black hoisted up a large photo of Leung’s face and chanted slogans calling on Leung to step down.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators blocked major streets in Hong Kong Monday. The occupation began after police sealed off the area around government headquarters, the site of student rallies last week.
The sit-in, at times, kept commuters from getting to work. More than 200 bus routes were suspended or rerouted, according to the city’s Transport Department.
Along with the tear gas and pepper spray, police also employed baton charges overnight to clear the crowds. Protesters used their umbrellas and raincoats as protection.
At least 70 people have been injured in protests since Friday, according to police, who added they fired 87 rounds of tear gas on Sunday as they tried to stop protesters from pushing through cordons and barricades.
Leung on Monday urged protesters to go home. “We don’t want Hong Kong to be messy,” he said.
He denied rumours the government had asked for intervention from the Chinese army.
Police withdrew the anti-riot squads Monday afternoon. A government statement said the situation had calmed.
Most protest areas in the city had no visible police presence, but several dozen police officers remained stationed near government headquarters.
China’s liaison office in Hong Kong condemned the “illegal” protests and supported the Hong Kong government’s efforts to tackle them.
Conversations about the situation in Hong Kong were being blocked on China’s social media websites.
The students organized after last month’s decision by China’s top legislative body to restrict nominations for chief executive in the 2017 elections, which would mean voters would only be able to choose from a pre-approved list. The winning candidate would also have to be formally appointed by the government in Beijing before taking office.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students announced over the weekend that it would extend its boycott of classes “indefinitely.”
Occupy Central wants Beijing to rescind the electoral rules and begin a new political reform consultation process.
Britain negotiated a “one country, two systems” principle as part of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule. It grants freedoms to Hong Kong residents that are not given to Chinese citizens on the mainland and allows Hong Kong relative autonomy until 2047.
Foreign governments should not “interfere” in Hong Kong’s politics by supporting ongoing democracy protests deemed illegal by the Chinese government, says Beijing.
“The central government is firmly against any illegal activities which destroy the rule of law and the peaceful society in Hong Kong,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said when asked about statements of support from US and other politicians.
“We hope relevant countries mind their speech and actions, do not interfere [in] the internal affairs of Hong Kong [and] do not support Occupy Central and other illegal activities through any measures,” Hua said.