Hong Kong democracy protesters defied volleys of tear gas and police baton charges to stand firm in the centre of the global financial hub today, one of the biggest political challenges for China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago.
The Communist government in Beijing made clear it would not tolerate dissent, and warned against any foreign interference as thousands of protesters massed for a fourth night in the free-wheeling, capitalist city of more than 7 million people.
«Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong,» Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying defiantly told a news briefing in Beijing.
The unrest, the worst in Hong Kong since China resumed its rule over the former British colony in 1997, sent white clouds of gas wafting among some of the world’s most valuable office towers and shopping malls before riot police suddenly withdrew around lunchtime today.
Tens of thousands of mostly student protesters are demanding full democracy and have called on the city’s leader Leung Chun-ying to step down.
China rules Hong Kong under a «one country, two systems» formula that accords the territory only a degree of democracy.
As riot police withdrew, weary protesters slept beside roads or sheltered from the sun beneath umbrellas, which have become a symbol of what some are calling the «Umbrella Revolution». In addition to protection from the elements, umbrellas have been used as flimsy shields against pepper spray.
Organisers have said that as many as 80,000 people have thronged the streets after the protests flared on Friday night. No independent estimate of numbers was available.
The protests, with no single identifiable leader, bring together a mass movement of mostly tech-savvy students who have grown up with freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China. The movement represents one of the biggest threats for Beijing’s Communist Party leadership since its bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy student protests in and around Tiananmen Square.
Cracking down too hard could shake confidence in market-driven Hong Kong, while not reacting firmly enough could embolden dissidents on the mainland.
The protests are expected to escalate on October 1, China’s National Day holiday, with residents of the nearby former Portuguese enclave of Macau planning a rally. Pro-democracy supporters from other countries are also expected to protest, causing Beijing further embarrassment.
Such dissent would never be tolerated on the mainland, where the phrase «Occupy Central» was blocked on Sunday on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. The protests have received little coverage on the mainland, save for government condemnation.
Protesters say there should be open nominations for candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 leadership election. China’s rubber-stamp parliament endorsed a framework on August 31 that ensured only pro-Beijing candidates.