HONG KONG ― Police armed with pepper spray and batons clashed with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, as fears grew Sunday that officials would use force to clear key streets by the beginning of the work week.
Large crowds of protesters scuffled with police overnight in the blue-collar Mong Kok district in Kowloon, a flashpoint that has seen violent clashes between pro-democracy student protesters and their antagonists over the weekend.
Tens of thousands of people, many of them students, have poured into the city’s streets in the past week to peacefully protest China’s restrictions on the election for the city’s top leader. But as the standoff between the protesters and the government entered its eighth day, tempers flared and patience was waning among residents who oppose the occupation of the streets and the disruption it brings.
Police said they had to disperse the crowds with force early Sunday because they provoked officers with verbal abuse, while the students accuse police of failing to protect them from attacks by mobs intent on driving them away. The students claim that police had allied with criminal gangs to clear them, but the government has vehemently denied it.
The city’s top leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, appeared on television Saturday evening to once again urge everyone to go home, saying key roads paralyzed by protesters need to return to normal by today.
“The government and the police have the duty and determination to take all necessary actions to restore social order so the government and the 7 million people of Hong Kong can return to their normal work and life,” Leung said.
On Sunday, the atmosphere on the streets was tense amid fears police may use pepper spray and tear gas to disperse the protesters, as they did last weekend. The University of Hong Kong, among others, warned students to leave the streets.
“I am making this appeal from my heart because I genuinely believe that if you stay, there is a risk to your safety,” said Peter Mathieson, the university’s president. “Please leave now: You owe it to your loved ones to put your safety above all other considerations.”
The protests are the strongest challenge to authorities in Hong Kong—and in Beijing—since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing has promised that the city can have universal suffrage by 2017, but it says a committee of mostly pro-Beijing figures must screen candidates for the top job. The protesters are also demanding Leung’s resignation, but he has refused.
The next steps are uncertain, after student leaders called off planned talks with the government until officials respond to claims that police tolerated attacks by alleged mobsters. Police had earlier arrested 19 people in the brawls in Mong Kok, including eight men believed to have backgrounds linked to triads, or organized crime.
“In the last week we have seen the police have cooperated with gangs and triads. They are no longer law enforcers. I don’t think they deserve our respect anymore,” said accountant Tony Chan, 26.
The government said Sunday it was happy to talk to the students, and that it hoped protest leaders would cooperate and allow the reopening of the roads outside the government’s headquarters.
Thin streams of protesters were gathering Sunday in Admiralty, a key ground for the movement, following a massive rally lasting hours Saturday.
The arrival of three police vans at the protest ground outside Leung’s office sparked tensions, as protesters worried the vans carried arms that could be used against them. Police negotiators tried to persuade protesters to let the vans through and said they carried only food and water for officers.
“I believe there will be lots of people who want to stop the police clearing this place. But if the police use rubber bullets, or real bullets, there will be many people who will leave the place because it will be too dangerous,” said Jack Fung, 19, a student.
Fung said he supported allowing civil servants to go back to work Monday, but he believed protesters should block Leung from entering his office.
In Mong Kok, the violence calmed later Sunday but rowdy crowds kept up loud and heated street arguments. Many residents and business people are fed up with the disruption, saying they want to return to normal life as soon as possible.
Police officers carrying guns patrolled the area, and at least one officer was seen carrying tear gas canisters.
Johnson Cheung, 26, was among about 60 of the movement’s opponents. He said he supported the freedom of expression, but complained that the protesters are driving away tourists and income for businesses.
“This is a public place, people need to use this road, people need to live here,” said Cheung, who works in a duty free shop. “The students don’t need to make a living, their parents pay for them. But we have jobs, we have to live.”
In Admiralty, an unidentified man who opposed the protests drew media attention when he stood on a footbridge as if to jump. Firefighters opened an air cushion beneath him as he demanded the students leave.
“You’ve been out here a whole week. I have three kids who need to go to school and I need to go to work,” he shouted at the crowd.
Associated Press writer Elaine Kurtenbach contributed to this report.