Pro-Democracy Protesters Swarm Hong Kong, Violent Clashes With Police

Updated: Sept. 28, 2014, 2:21 p.m. E.T.

Police used tear gas, batons and pepper spray against pro-democracy demonstrators in central Hong Kong on Sunday, as tens of thousands joined a civil-disobedience movement that seeks unfettered elections for the city’s top job.

The demonstrations, which were originally supposed to be confined to the Central district, continued into Monday morning and spread to various neighborhoods, including across the iconic harbor in Kowloon. Tear gas even billowed into the city's famously efficient subway system.

Protesters chanted democracy slogans and sang songs by legendary 1980s Hong Kong rock band Beyond. Many were apparently drawn onto the street after becoming incensed that the police had fired tear gas at the crowds. Some 78 people were arrested, say police.

"This protest is definitely outside of anyone's expectations," says Maya Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Hong Kong. "Both the government in Hong Kong and in Beijing are going to have a huge headache on their hands."

Occupy Central With Peace and Love, as the protest is officially known, aims to foment democratic change by paralyzing the heart of this freewheeling financial hub. It was originally slated to begin Wednesday, but an aligned student demonstration Friday gathered such momentum that its leaders brought the launch forward.

“We want to help the students achieve their goals,” Benny Tai, a founder of Occupy Central, told TIME on Sunday morning. “They want to stay here, and we want to support them."

By Sunday afternoon, protesters brandishing umbrellas repeatedly charged at lines of riot police in front of Government House, only to be repelled by volleys of pepper spray. The protesters then retreated to regroup and rushed again. Each time, the cache of mangled umbrellas behind the police grew larger. As tensions rose, tear gas was fired at the crowd in Harcourt Road. Dozens of police and protesters were injured in the melee.

"They needed to do something to control the scene, so they needed to shoot the gas," a police spokesman told TIME. "[The protests] are not good for ordinary people." Late Sunday evening, officers held banners aloft that read "Disperse or We Will Fire" as rumors swirled of rubber bullets being readied.

Hong Kong has been run under a “one country, two systems” since British colonial rule ended in 1997. Beijing had promised to let residents choose the city’s Chief Executive, the tellingly corporate title of the top job in this bastion of free enterprise, by 2017, but now insists that all candidates must first be vetted by a committee perceived as curated by the Chinese Community Party.

Hong Kong’s democracy activists see this as a betrayal; Beijing retorts that the Special Administrative Region already enjoys considerable autonomy and lacks patriotism.

Current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, a polarizing figure largely seen as loyal to the mainland, told reporters Sunday that Hong Kong was "not a self-contained democracy."

"Any fair-minded person will come to the conclusion that the method of electing the Chief Executive in 2017 is more democratic," he said. "It is not ideal, but it is better."

On Saturday, a public square attached to the government headquarters was stormed by students, and at least 74 people were arrested. That protest swelled to upwards of 50,000 people, according to organizers, congregating in the austere, concrete flanking areas.

Hong Kong Police Commissioner Andy Tsang defended his officers' handling of the student protests when speaking with media Sunday. "Even after considering the protesters were unarmed, I believe it is important to consider that many others were injured as a result of their acts," he said.

On Sunday afternoon, several pro-democracy legislators were arrested for “obstructing police in the detainment of audio equipment” at one of the steel barriers, according to the Hong Kong Federation of Students. That same organization donned black T-shirts with the English phrase, in green letters, "Freedom Now!"

Layla Chang, an 18-year-old university student, said she didn't feel she could leave the main protest site even if she tried, since the police had been blocking all entrances and exits, and the throngs had amassed to intractable numbers outside. "We are very afraid but we can't leave now," she said.

Early on, the sprawl had a typically Hong Kong sense of order, with volunteers organizing the collection and sorting of waste, and medical groups erecting tents to treat protesters for exhaustion and pepper spray. Plastic wrap, to guard against the latter, was doled out by organizers. Protesters caught quick naps under the shade of blue and red tents and hunted for snacks in the piles of bread, bananas, cookies and water that volunteers had dropped off. Yellow ribbons, a long-standing symbol of demands for universal suffrage, were wound around police barricades. At one, dozens of umbrellas were fanned out to protect against the use of pepper spray.

In a surreal scene, at a park just a few hundred yards from the protests, a small group of elderly folk listened to Mandarin songs celebrating the coming 65th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Audrey Eu, chairman of the Civic Party, a leading pro-democracy party in Hong Kong, told TIME that though she thought it “unlikely” Beijing would reverse its position on the 2017 elections, the protests would go a long way toward galvanizing pro-democracy sentiment and heralding future change. "This is a broad-based movement," she said.

“The people of Hong Kong need to stand up and defend one country, two systems,” she said by a police barricade, protective ski goggles perched on her head. She had brought her sleeping bag for a possible "long wait."

“I’m prepared to be arrested,” Jimmy Lai, a prominent Hong Kong publisher and critic of the Beijing government, told reporters, as he sat down in front of a row of police on Sunday morning, wearing a plastic white raincoat and pair of goggles.

“If you persist in resistance, there is always hope,” he told TIME. “If you give up, there is no hope.”

Gemma Yim, 21, a university student sitting behind Lai, said she was not prepared to go home anytime soon and would stay at least until all those demonstrators arrested Saturday were released.

"We just want to go step-by-step," she said. "Right now, I don't know what we can do but go on strike."

At around 8 p.m., police announced they had released Joshua Wong, leader of the Scholarism student-activist group, who was arrested Friday for his role in the earlier disturbances. The 17-year-old vowed to join the demonstrations after taking a shower and rest at home.

May Wong, a 55-year-old NGO employee, pledged to stay on the streets all night if necessary. "As a Hong Kong citizen, we need to support the students," she said. "We support what they support — universal suffrage."

But by 11:15 p.m., Occupy Central co-organizer Chan Kin-man urged the protesters to retreat, fearing bloodshed. "It is a matter of life and death," he told the South China Morning Post. "We put people's safety as our top priority. Retreat doesn't mean giving up ... we will still continue to struggle."

— With reporting by Zoher Abdoolcarim, David Stout and Rishi Iyengar / Hong Kong

— Video by Helen Regan / Hong Kong

Photographs of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.Paula Bronstein—Getty Images
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters walk along the protest site on a quiet night as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy protester sleeps on a concrete road divider on a street outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
People try to prevent a man from removing a barricade set up by pro-democracy protesters blocking a main road at Hong Kong's shopping Mongkok district Oct. 4, 2014.
Policemen try to get a man to let go of a fence guarded by pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on Oct. 3, 2014.
A local resident breaks through police lines and attempts to reach the pro-democracy tent on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
A student protester is injured after being pulled off and hit by residents and pro-Beijing supporters while local police are escorting him out of the protest area in Kowloon's crowded Mong Kok district, Oct. 3, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Students and pro-democracy activists leave the protest site as local police hold back local residents and pro-government supporters on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
A man walks past a barricade as protesters continue to block areas outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong, Oct. 3, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong, Sept. 3, 2014.
Student protesters raise their hands to show their non-violent intentions as they resist during change of shift for local police but backed down after being reassured they could reoccupy the pavement outside the government compoundís gate, Oct. 2, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Police stand guard outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Oct. 2, 2014, as pro-democracy protesters remain gathered for the fifth day in a push for free elections of the city's leader.
A taxi driver gives a thumbs up to pro-democracy protesters as he drives past the protest site in front of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's office, Oct. 3, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters sleep on the road outside the Police Headquarters building on Oct. 2, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Students from various universities continue their protest in the streets of Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2014.
A protester holding an umbrella stands on the street close to the Hong Kong Government Complexon Oct. 1, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, delivers a speech as protesters block the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014.
Protesters react as Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, speaks to the crowd outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014.
Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators, some waving lights from mobile phones, fill the streets in the main finical district of Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2014.
A protester sleeps on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex at sunrise on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators rest during a protest in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
Protesters relax on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy protestor speaks to the crowd in front of the government offices in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
A couple wearing protective masks and ponchos walk through Admiralty district as part of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
Protesters sing songs and wave their cell phones in the air after a massive thunderstorm passed over outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators gather for the third night in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
A businessman stands in front of a road block set up by protesters at the main street of the financial Central district in Hong Kong Sept. 29, 2014.
A protester raises his arms as police officers try to disperse the crowd near the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2014.
Umbrellas used to shield demonstrators from pepper spray and the sun are displayed during a pro-democracy protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Residents on scooters bring supplies to protesters camped outside the headquarters of Legislative Council during protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
Police walk down a stairwell as pro-democracy demonstrators gather for a rally outside the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters gather in the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 29, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up their mobile phones during a protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator wearing a mask and goggles to protect against pepper spray and tear gas gestures during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police launch tear gas into the crowd as thousands of protesters surround the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
A protester walks in tear gas fired by riot policemen after thousands of protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy protester confronts the police during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters demonstrate in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Policemen confronts protesters in Hong Kong during a demonstration on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police fire tear gas on student protesters occupying streets surrounding the government headquarters in Hong Kong, early on Sept. 29, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator pours water over a man's face after police fired tear gas at protesters during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters put their hands up in the air in front of the police in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Some of the protesters sleep as they block the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters, with other demonstrators in Hong Kong, Sept, 29, 2014.
Policemen rest following pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Paula Bronstein—Getty Images
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