Students Stage Hunger Strike to Demand Full Democracy in Hong Kong

china-hk-protest-debris-dec-2014.jpg Debris blocks escalators leading to government headquarters in Hong Kong's Admiralty district, Dec. 1, 2014.

Updated at 6:00 p.m. EST on 2014-12-1

Hong Kong student leaders said they have begun a hunger strike in a bid to pressure Beijing into allowing full democracy for the city after thousands of pro-democracy activists forced a temporary closure of the government headquarters following clashes with police.

The student leaders announced their "indefinite" hunger strike hours after Hong Kong's leader Leung Chun-ying warned that police would take "resolute action" against protests now into their third month.

On Monday, police used pepper spray and batons on students trying to storm government headquarters, in some of the worst violence since the rallies began in September after Beijing refused to allow a free vote for electing Hong Kong’s leader.

Joshua Wong, 18, who heads the academic activist group Scholarism said that he and two other student activists would begin fasting to attempt to force the Hong Kong government to respond to their demands for free elections in the semi-autonomous Chinese city in 2017.

"We, Scholarism, announce that now I, Joshua Wong, Wong Tsz-yuet and Lo Yin-wai, the three representatives, will go on an indefinite hunger strike," Wong told protesters on stage at the main Occupy Central protest site in the former British colony's Admiralty district.

"Living in these troubled times, there is a duty," Wong wrote in a statement on Facebook after the announcement, and which was also signed by Lo, 18, and Wong Tsz-yuet, 17.

"Today we are willing to pay the price, we are willing to take the responsibility," the statement said. “We want to take back our future.”

Previous hunger strikes in Hong Kong have tended to be carried out by large groups of people in shifts.

But the three students said they would fast "indefinitely" unless the Hong Kong government, which has ruled out further talks with students and called on them to end their "illegal" protests, reopens dialogue, and Beijing withdraws an Aug. 31 decision on electoral reform.

The three wrote that they had “tried everything,” including a student strike, surrounding the chief executive's office, dialogue with the government, and occupation of key areas in Hong Kong—Admiralty, Mong Kok, Causeway Bay and Tsimshatsui.

"Our bodies are tired, but spiritually we feel as if we have endless energy," the students wrote.

"We feel that we won't be wasting our young lives if we stake them on the progress of democracy in Hong Kong," they said.

"We are afraid, but we won't run away."

Monday clashes

The announcement followed the forced closure of Hong Kong’s government headquarters in the Admiralty district by thousands of Occupy Central activists on Monday morning, amid conflicting visions for the future of the movement in support of full democracy.

Government headquarters reopened on Monday afternoon after numbers thinned, and police were able to regain access after using water hoses and pepper spray against the crowd, forcing those who remained back to their encampment on nearby Harcourt Road.

Dozens of people were arrested after protesters barricaded roads and blocked entrances to the central government office building in the early hours of Monday.

Leung warned that arrests on public order charges could affect the future of protesters, the majority of whom are university students and young professionals.

"We do not wish to arrest people in site clearance ... as they will have criminal records, which will affect their chances in studying and working overseas," Leung said.

But he warned that police restraint shouldn't be mistaken for incompetence.

"Please do not take tolerance as incapability in handling the issue ... do not think the police are weak," Leung said.

Alex Chow, who heads the influential Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) told reporters on Monday that the bid to escalate the civil disobedience campaign hadn't worked.

"The aim was to disrupt the government," Chow said. "We can say we were successful for a short time. But it ultimately failed and there is room for improvement."

"We will have discussions in the Occupy area in the following days on how the movement should go ahead," he said.

Violent confrontation

One protester surnamed Lui said he had witnessed violent scenes during the clashes, in which dozens were reported injured by local hospitals.

"They used batons, as if they had gone crazy ... Some people were injured by their beatings, and there was a lot of blood," he said.

"The police were trying to arrest people, but we managed to pull a few people to safety," Lui said, adding that he thought the "escalation" plan hadn't been planned in great detail.

"I don't think this really counts as an escalation," he said.

According to the government, "violent radicals" were among the crowds and repeatedly shoved police officers and charged police lines.

"The police took resolute action by using appropriate force to stop these illegal acts and disperse and arrest those involved," a spokesman said, adding that at least 11 police officers were injured in the clashes.

The clashes came amid growing differences within the Occupy Central movement, whose founders are calling on occupiers to go home after they symbolically turn themselves in to police.

However, activist groups Scholarism and HKFS say they won't leave unless the decision to do so is unanimous.

Meanwhile, more radical voices within the movement are calling for an escalation of protests to force the government to take action on their demands.

Occupy movement

The Occupy movement began on Sept. 28, when police use of tear-gas and pepper spray against umbrella-wielding demonstrators made international headlines, bringing hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets in protest at the movement's height.

But Hong Kong officials have repeatedly told the protesters to leave, saying that Beijing won't withdraw an Aug. 31 decision ruling out public nomination of candidates in the 2017 election for the chief executive.

China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), said that while Hong Kong's five million voters will cast ballots to elect the next chief executive, they may only choose between two or three candidates approved by a pro-Beijing committee.

Protesters and pan-democratic politicians, who currently only have around seven percent of the nominating committee vote compared with 56 percent of the popular vote in the last legislative election, have dismissed the proposed electoral reforms as "fake universal suffrage."

Labour party chairman and lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan called on Monday for more discussions about the future of the movement.

"When protesters escalate their actions, police also escalate their violence," Lee said in comments reported by the South China Morning Post newspaper.

"Because of such differences ... it'll be more difficult to remain peaceful and non-violent while escalating action."

Meanwhile, Hong Kong's High Court on Monday barred pro-democracy protesters from occupying Harcourt Road—the site of the main encampment—Connaught Road Central, and most of Cotton Tree Drive.

The court claimed the protesters right to demonstrate was "not absolute and subject to limitation," saying it had to be balanced against the public's right to use the roads.

A student protester at Admiralty surnamed Shuet said he planned to remain until the police moved him from the site.

"We will definitely remain in occupation, and if they come here, we will think about leaving then," Shuet told RFA. But he added: "I hope there won't be too big a backlash."

Reported by Wen Yuqing and Pan Jiaqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin and Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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