Hong Kong will begin talks with pro-democracy protesters Oct. 21, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam said today, after police clashed with about 9,000 demonstrators in the Mong Kok district overnight when authorities cleared barricades.
The city’s No. 2 official said the talks will be moderated by Lingnan University President Leonard Cheung Kwok Hon, last about two hours and be broadcast live on television. Student leaders had asked the government to hold the talks no later than Oct. 22.
Last night police, some in full riot gear, battled with demonstrators for control of major roads in the busy shopping district north of the city’s harbor, less than 24 hours after authorities had cleared protest barricades and opened roads there. Protesters reclaimed some of the areas later.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students set its deadline after city Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said Oct. 16 that his government is ready to meet student leaders next week as he seeks to end three weeks of protests. Police clearance will “seriously shake” the basis for dialogue, the student group said in a statement yesterday.
“I don’t trust the government any more,” said Benny Kung, 30, who is in the film production business. “I don’t know what I can do except stand here to support the protests however I can. The street clearing in Mong Kok this morning showed the government has no sincerity.”
Batons, pepper spray
Police used batons, shields and pepper spray last night as they sought to reclaim roads filled with a crowd they estimated at 9,000. They made a total of 33 arrests in Mong Kok and in the Central district, Hui Chun-tak, chief superintendent of the Police Public Relations Branch, told reporters at a press briefing today. Hui said 18 police officers were injured last night.
More than 200 people have been hospitalized over the three weeks of protests, Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man said on a Cable TV live broadcast today. Ko urged protesters to remain “calm and peaceful.”
Hong Kong Police Commissioner Andy Tsang Wai-hung, in a press briefing today, condemned “illegal acts” conducted by protesters over the past three weeks that he said have disrupted people’s lives and undermine the city’s public order.
Eight bank branches on Nathan Road in Mong Kok were closed today due to the protests, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority said in an e-mailed statement.
The renewed tension came after a flurry of activity on Oct. 16 raised hopes for a negotiated end to the biggest political upheaval in Hong Kong since China regained sovereignty in 1997.
There were about 500 police in Mong Kok around 10:50 p.m. Hong Kong time last night, according to Steven Tait, an officer on scene. The force used pepper spray in an attempt to move the crowd back onto the sidewalk of Nathan Road, a major thoroughfare. Police later withdrew from a portion of the northbound section of the road.
Police officers in riot gear hit with batons demonstrators holding umbrellas on Nathan Road in the Mong Kok area of Hong Kong on Oct. 17, 2014.
Police detained Getty Images Inc. photographer Paula Bronstein while she was covering the protests, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club said. She was released on bail, Radio Television Hong Kong reported today.
“Being able to be here to occupy a standing space is what I can do,” said Patrick Wong, in his mid 30s. “The police cleared the site here while talks with the government had started brewing. That’s not right.”
Conflict in Mong Kok can be resolved if Leung resumes dialogue with the students, protest group Occupy Central With Love and Peace said in e-mailed statement.
China’s decision that candidates must be vetted by a committee triggered the protests, which swelled to as many as 200,000 people at their peak, according to organizers. Crowds have since dwindled to hundreds on most days.
In announcing his offer of talks, Leung said the police will continue actions to end the blockades that still disrupt transport and commerce in the one of the world’s biggest financial centers. He dismissed demands that China permit voters to freely choose candidates for his successor in 2017.
“Dialogue and clearing protesters are two different issues,” he said at his press conference. “We won’t stop clearing protesters because we are having dialogue. We won’t stop having dialogue because we are clearing the sites.”
The police have cleared some roads in Admiralty and Causeway Bay, the other two districts protesters have occupied, earlier this week. They have said they aren’t removing demonstrators.
Pro-democracy movement supporters question the point of talks after the protesters’ most fundamental demand, that vetting be dropped, was taken off the table by Leung.
There’s no meaning to the talks unless “there is some concession from the central government or the Hong Kong government,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Labour Party, which supports the students.
The Standing Committee of China’s legislature ruled in August that the candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 election would have to be screened by a 1,200-member nominating committee. Pro-democracy activists say the mechanism will guarantee a leader loyal to the government in Beijing.
That ruling and Leung’s backing for the decision triggered the protests that began on Sept. 26 and spread to swathes of the city after police used tear gas on demonstrators two days later, sparking public outrage and broadening support for the students.
Leung’s new attempt at talks came in the wake of renewed public anger over the alleged beating of a protester by police on Oct. 15 that led the ranks of the demonstrators to swell anew. The seven officers allegedly involved in the assault are under a criminal probe, Chief Superintendent Hui Chun-tak said at a briefing yesterday.
The Hong Kong Association of Banks yesterday urged an immediate end to the protests, saying in a statement that protracted unrest could severely undermine the city’s competitiveness and its status as an international financial center.