Tensions escalated in Hong Kong yesterday as a mob tried to tear down barricades erected by pro-democracy protesters near the city’s business district, and student leaders vowed to defend front lines under threat of police moves to clear them.
A line of cabs and trucks with banners on their hoods saying “Enough is Enough” drove up to some blockades in the afternoon, complaining of damage to people’s livelihoods as rallies entered a third week. Scuffles broke out between police and some men who were wearing face masks. At least 19 people were arrested, the police said in an e-mailed statement.
Hong Kong police said yesterday they will “soon” remove road blocks in two areas, having reopened seven road sections earlier in the day. Alex Chow, leader of the city’s student federation, said it was redeploying its resources to defend the barricades at the main protest site, some of which were being reinforced with bamboo poles typically used for scaffolding in the city.
There was no sign of progress to negotiate an end to the political standoff that has polarized the city and presented China’s leaders with the biggest crisis over Hong Kong since it resumed sovereignty 17 years ago. The deadlock is increasingly pitting Hong Kong people against each other, with arguments raging over the cost to businesses and damage to the reputation of one the world’s biggest financial centers.
Pro-democracy forces initially took to the streets Sept. 26 in protest at the Chinese government’s insistence on vetting candidates for the election of the city’s chief executive in 2017. Numbers have ebbed and flowed since their peak of more than 100,000, generally rising in the evening and at weekends and thinning out overnight to just a few hundred.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said on Oct. 12 there is “almost zero chance” China will change its decision to vet candidates. Leung, who met Chinese officials across the mainland border this weekend, said yesterday that the government won’t let protesters illegally occupy streets for long.
The city’s police will move “soon” to remove barriers in Queensway -- a major artery into the financial district -- and the shopping area of Causeway Bay, Chief Superintendent Hui Chun-tak said at a briefing yesterday afternoon. Police aren’t trying to clear protesters, he added.
Demonstrators would redeploy resources to defend protest sites, Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, told reporters later. “The government has not given a clear political message from Beijing” in response to student demands after Leung and his deputy Carrie Lam met with Communist Party officials in Guangzhou, he said.
Leung has come under new pressure to resign after the Sydney Morning Herald said he was paid more than A$7 million ($6.1 million) by UGL Ltd., an Australian engineering company, from the sale of a property broker he worked at before taking office. Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption received a complaint and is looking into the case, the government said on Oct. 9. The payment was for bonus and wages owed to Leung for his work at DTZ Holdings Plc, which UGL had acquired, Leung’s office said in a statement.
Dozens of protesters fortified barricades in Queensway with trash bins, bus stop signs, police cones, bamboo poles, wooden pallets and cement. Dozens more sat on the ground at the eastern end in the district of Wan Chai facing police.
The police said reinforced barricades are dangerous and will hinder the movement of emergency vehicles, Scholarism said in a Facebook post, citing a statement from police. The police said the blockades need to be removed to restore traffic and that they aren’t ruling out the use of “minimum force” if they’re obstructed from doing so, according to Scholarism.
Police had to block mobs of angry men earlier yesterday seeking to get rid of the protesters for a second time since rallies started. Blockaded roads at the three protest sites have disrupted 40 percent of bus routes and led to miles of rush-hour traffic jams.
“I’ve lost about 30 percent to 40 percent of business” since the protests started, said Ku Tak-man, a cab driver at the barricades. “They are blocking my roads.”
Lines of police linked arms to separate the two groups, with the drivers chanting for the protesters to “open roads” in front of the Bank of China Tower on Queensway. The anti-occupy demonstrators began to dissipate just before 3 p.m. yesterday, while some of the taxi drivers lingered nearby.
The student protesters have led cushy lives and don’t know suffering, said Chan Ah-fun, a 53-year-old cleaner in the anti-Occupy group. “They should listen to their parents.”
Students accused police of doing too little to protect them, just as they had on Oct. 3 when mobs attacked protesters in Mong Kok. Police later said the assailants in the first attack were connected to triad organized crime gangs.
“Some of them ran into our place, and some of them may be thugs,” Chan Mo, a student protester, said in Admiralty, the site of the biggest protest outside the government’s headquarters. “They beat up people. I got hit on my head and chest. But we will protect our place.”
A coalition of truck drivers last week gave demonstrators a deadline of Oct. 15 to open the roads or they would tear barricades down. Nine associations, which control 70 percent of the city’s 120,000 trucks, are part of the coalition.