HONG KONG (Reuters) - Thousands of students and protesters marched to the official residence of Hong Kong’s leader on Thursday to demand a meeting, defying police warnings, as tensions simmer over the financial hub’s democratic future.
Carrying a huge image of Leung Chun-ying with vampire’s teeth, the protesters chanted for the Beijing-backed leader to step down during a march snaking through commercial buildings, footbridges and streets up to the back gate of Government House.
Police tried several times to stop the human flow, holding up yellow posters warning against a “breach of the law”, only for protesters to break through and continue marching.
“Tonight, C.Y. Leung is our most wanted criminal,” said one of the students, Nathan Law.
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 as a “special administrative region” with a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on mainland China under a formula known as “one country, two systems”.
But Beijing last month rejected demands for people to freely choose the city’s next leader, prompting threats from pro-democracy activists to shut down the Central financial district. It wants to limit 2017 elections for Hong Kong’s leader to a handful of candidates loyal to Beijing.
The student-led march that organizers said drew more than four thousand people is a continuation of four full days of activities including citywide boycotts by thousands of university students, public assemblies, marches and speeches.
The protesters are demanding full democracy in a series of escalating acts that will culminate in an “Occupy Central” blockade of roads in the main financial district on Oct. 1.
The march came after Leung ignored a 48-hour ultimatum to meet the students. He said in a statement that he respected the “students’ aspirations and perseverance on democracy and their expectations on and willingness to take responsibility for the future of Hong Kong”.
“CY Step down,” the crowds chanted outside Leung’s colonial era mansion in the hills above the financial district. They also shouted for China’s president Xi Jinping to “shut up” on matters related to Hong Kong political development.
Scores of police corralled the crowds with metal barricades and blocked roads. A police spokesman urged the students to “maintain social order” and to express their views “peacefully and rationally”.
A smaller group of younger secondary school students are expected to join the boycott on Friday. The student protests are part of a string of civil disobedience acts, including an unofficial referendum and an overnight sit-in in the city’s business district on July 2 that led to more than 500 arrests.
There have been minor clashes with police this week but the protests have remained largely peaceful and authorities have been tolerant in allowing public assemblies at Tamar Park, located between the government headquarters and the legislature.
While the mood has been defiant but peaceful so far in the gatherings on a large grass slope overlooking Victoria harbor, there have been signs of underlying social tensions between the city’s liberal factions and conservative pro-Beijing supporters.
A teenager had his front tooth cracked when a middle-aged man elbowed him in the face as he spoke into a loudhailer on a street corner to drum up support for the school boycott.
“I find it shocking how they accuse us of using violence and of acting like Red Guards to get our way,” said Chow Kar-ho, the 16-year-old victim, after the attack. “But now they use the same violence against us.”
The organizers of Occupy Central have all but confirmed a “grand banquet” will take place on Oct. 1 drawing an expected 10,000 people, but have been vague about specifics for fear of being arrested ahead of their action.
“If there are ... 10,000 people sitting on the roads, and if four policemen are needed to haul off each person, then this will take some time,” said Chan Kin-man, one of the organizers.
Reporting by Clare Baldwin, Diana Chan, Kinling Lo and James Pomfret; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Catherine Evans