Hong Kong protests: Government resumes talks with demonstrators after police retreat in face of students

Batons and pepper spray do not deter pro-democracy activists from retaking streets in the Mong Kok district
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The Independent Online

Hong Kong's government has said it will meet pro-democracy activists on Tuesday. The move came after dozens of people were injured as several thousand protesters squared off through Friday night against the police in the densely populated Mong Kok district, recapturing parts of a core protest zone from the police early yesterday. At least 33 people were arrested, the RTHK Hong Kong public broadcaster reported.

Although police used batons and pepper spray and scuffled with activists, they were eventually forced to pull back less than 24 hours after they reopened most of the area to traffic. Hong Kong's police commissioner, Andy Tsang, broke three weeks of public silence to say his force had been "extremely tolerant" but they had failed to stop protesters becoming more "radical or violent".

Referring to the protesters, Mr Tsang told a news conference: "You may think that your illegal acts have prevented the police in going about our duties, disrupted our deployments and even forced us to retreat. Superficially, that may be the case. But let me tell you this: these illegal acts are undermining the rule of law, undermining [what] Hong Kong has been relying on to succeed."

After the police retreated, demonstrators swiftly stacked up barricades made out of packing crates and fences. Mr Tsang added that the reoccupation of the area "seriously undermined public order and seriously jeopardised public safety".

The protesters, led by students, have been demanding China's Communist Party rulers live up to constitutional promises to grant full democracy to the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The clashes came after Hong Kong's pro-Beijing leader, Leung Chunying, said last Thursday that he was looking for ways to resume talks this week aimed at ending the pro-democracy protest that has grabbed global headlines with scenes of clashes and clouds of tear gas rising between some of the world's most valuable office buildings.

Mr Leung's chief secretary, Carrie Lam, announced yesterday that talks between student leaders and the city government would take place for two hours on Tuesday. Ms Lam said the talks would be focused on constitutional reform, with both sides allowed to bring five members to the meeting, which will reportedly be broadcast live.

Hong Kong is ruled under a "one country, two systems" formula that allows the thriving capitalist hub wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms, and specifies universal suffrage for Hong Kong as an eventual goal.

But Beijing ruled on 31 August that it would screen candidates who seek to run for the city's chief executive post in 2017, which democracy activists said rendered the universal suffrage concept meaningless. The protesters are demanding free elections for their leader.

The Mong Kok area was calm later in the day yesterday, as a number of protesters rested. Police stood in formation away from the barricades.

Posters declaring "Reclaim Mong Kok!" had been plastered on shop fronts. The protesters who remained were bracing themselves for another bruising night.

Student Angel So, 20, said she was determined to stop police clearing the area again. "We'll keep coming back," she said, as a friend, Terry Leung, nursed grazes on his arms and legs from scuffles with police.

Joshua Wong, a bookish 18-year-old whose fiery speeches have helped drive the protests, was defiant. "We will stay and fight till the end," he said, as he surveyed the crowd from the top of a subway station exit.

The escalation in the confrontation illustrates the dilemma faced by police in trying to strike a balance between law enforcement and not inciting the protesters, who have been out since late last month in three central shopping and government districts. Last week, a video showing plain-clothes police officers beating an unarmed protester, who is a member of the pro-democracy Civic Party, also caused outrage.

Beyond Mong Kok, about 1,000 protesters remained camped out on the harbour area of Hong Kong Island in a sea of tents on an eight-lane highway beneath skyscrapers close to government headquarters.

Despite the talks proposed by Mr Leung this week, few expect any resolution without more concrete concessions being offered by the authorities.