Riot police in Hong Kong fired tear-gas and pepper spray on thousands of pro-democracy protesters who converged downtown Sunday as spontaneous protests erupted across the former British colony in anger at the force used by the authorities on peaceful demonstrations.
The protesters blocked key sites in the downtown Central business district, adjacent Admiralty, as well as major streets in the shopping districts of Causeway Bay on Hong Kong island, and Mong Kok in Kowloon, defying official warnings that the demonstrations were illegal.
The protests flared after students and activists camped out since late Friday outside the government complex, near the business district to oppose Beijing's decision to limit electoral reforms for Hong Kong.
Chanting "The students are innocent!" and "Give us back our human rights!," protesters sat cross-legged in the middle of the streets as buses, taxis, and mini-buses sat parked on the tarmac, unable to move forward, with some abandoned by their drivers.
Police responded with loud-hailers and banner warnings that protesters were surrounded and should disperse or risk being driven off with tear-gas or pepper spray, which officers carried in large tanks on their backs, squirting it with pumps into the eyes of protesters who got close.
Demonstrators clad in plastic raincoats used umbrellas, plastic goggles and wet towels to protect themselves against the onslaught, while others shifted barricades from the center of the highway to obstruct the police advance.
A protester raises his hands in front of riot police.(RFA photo)
On a main highway between Central and Admiralty districts, protesters with both hands held high surrounded a group of police, chanting "Leave! Leave!" and eventually forcing them to retreat, a live online feed from the Apple Daily newspaper's YouTube channel showed.
Hundreds more lined overhead pedestrian walkways, with others taking over flyovers normally used only by traffic.
The sit-ins began after the organizers of Occupy Central announced that the long-promised civil disobedience campaign had officially begun on Sunday, following clashes between police and students who stormed government headquarters late on Friday, which resulted in dozens of arrests.
Occupy founder Benny Tai told RFA that the group had now begun coordinating protest action with the students, who staged a five-day class boycott independently last week.
"We saw this coming, that a situation like this might arise, and that an Occupy Central movement might just occur, but we didn't know how big it would be," he said.'Turning point'
Meanwhile, Tommy Cheung, president of the Chinese University of Hong Kong student union, told the crowd to thunderous applause that where the movement goes next is up to them.
"This is a turning point in our history," Cheung said. "We're not just talking about the issue of universal suffrage now."
A number of prominent student leaders including Hong Kong Federation of Students head Alex Chow and Joshua Wong, leader of the academic activist group Scholarism, were arrested during the bid to break into government headquarters on Friday, but were later released.
Clashes with police and the arrest of several student leaders brought streams of fresh supporters onto the streets after around 150 demonstrators broke through police lines and stormed the city headquarters late on Friday night, prompting 74 arrests.
The students are now demanding the resignation of chief executive C.Y. Leung and the officials in charge of designing a political reform process which will ensure that only candidates approved by Beijing will be able to stand in 2017 elections for Leung's replacement.
They also called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to retract an Aug. 31 statement ruling out the public nomination of candidates after 800,000 voted in favor of public nomination in an unofficial referendum organized by the Occupy movement.Rumors
However, the student federation also advised protesters to disperse following rumors that police were planning to use rubber bullets, a rumor that a police statement later denied, and an acoustic cannon.
"We are urging protesters to retreat," the HKFS said via its Twitter account. "Stay safe. This is a long battle."
The government, and later chief executive C.Y. Leung, both issued statements calling on the crowds to go home.
In a recorded statement posted of the government's website, Leung denied rumors that the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which has a barracks close to one of the protest sites, would be deployed.
But thousands of protesters continued to gather in Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok in spite of the warnings. Some told local media they had felt compelled to join the protest after seeing tear-gas used on news reports.Teachers strike
The territory's Professional Teachers' Union [PTU] has called for a teachers' strike starting on Monday in protest at the use of force against protesters.
"The police have made themselves enemy of the people," union president Fung Wai-wah told the South China Morning Post
newspaper. "The PTU is extremely angry and strongly condemns the SAR government's and police's crazy actions."
One protester at the Central sit-in told RFA: "I am in my nineties, and I think my generation have let the students down by not fighting and achieving universal suffrage, for not winning democracy."
"Now we have left this difficult task for them," he said.
A university student surnamed Chan said any sacrifice made by the students would be worth it.
"We are now fighting for democracy for Hong Kong," Chan said.
And pro-democracy Civic Party leader Alan Leong, who was also at the scene, said he was also prepared for any outcome.
"We are prepared to be arrested," he said, adding: "There are far more people here than I expected there to be."'Sad day'
Former second-in-command of the Hong Kong colonial-era government Anson Chan said the police use of force was "a sad day for Hong Kong."
"Pictures of our police force firing pepper spray and tear gas into the faces of unarmed protestors will shame our government in front of the whole world," she said in a statement issued in the early hours of Monday morning, local time.
"By not fighting for the aspirations of the community for genuine universal suffrage our government has paved the way for the current crisis," she said.
"What we need now is leadership and accountability, not violence and repression."Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.