HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong police on Wednesday cleared one of the largest protest sites that have choked the city for months, arresting scores of pro-democracy activists in a blow to those hoping to wrest greater political freedom from authorities in Beijing.
But thousands of mostly young demonstrators streamed back in the evening and clashed sporadically with police as they attempted to regain lost ground in the gritty Mong Kok district.
Student leaders Joshua Wong and Lester Shum were among those arrested as hundreds of officers advanced in lines through Mong Kok earlier in the day, clearing barricades and tents that had blocked key roads in the Chinese-ruled city for over two months.
Many protesters remained defiant, denying the setback marked the beginning of the end of the occupation, and it was not clear if or when police might try to remove the remaining protest sites elsewhere in the city.
“You can’t defeat the protesters’ hearts!” screamed Liu Yuk-lin, a 52-year-old protester in a hard hat holding a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the movement, as she stood before lines of police in helmets and goggles.
Following a surprisingly smooth and swift morning clearance by police that restored traffic to an area where demonstrators had camped out since late September to call for greater democracy, protesters regrouped and retaliated late at night.
Some tried storming Nathan Road, but ultimately failed to penetrate the mass deployment of police at key intersections.
However, hundreds of activists surged into side streets, chanting for “real universal suffrage”.
Police used pepper spray and batons to force crowds back, while individuals were chased and wrestled to the ground by officers before being taken away to loud jeers from the crowds.
Mong Kok has been a flashpoint for clashes between students and mobs intent on breaking up protests, which have posed one of the biggest challenges to China’s Communist Party leaders since the crushing of student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing in 1989.
Earlier, court-appointed bailiffs had warned demonstrators to leave and workers in red caps and “I Love HK” T-shirts began clearing metal and wooden barricades laid across Nathan Road, as well as tents, marquees and furniture used by the protesters.
Over 100 arrests have been made in Mong Kok over the past two days including for unlawful assembly and assault, with some protesters hospitalised with head injuries from baton blows.
A Reuters witness saw police haul away Shum, and the Facebook page of the student group Scholarism announced that Wong had been arrested for contempt of court.
Although the protests have had no formal leadership structure, Wong and Shum were part of a group of students who many looked to as the movement’s de facto leaders.
In August, Beijing offered the people of Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, the chance to vote for their own leader in 2017, but said only two to three candidates could run after getting majority backing from a 1,200-person “nominating committee” stacked with Beijing loyalists.
The protests started in late September and drew more than 100,000 to the streets at their peak.
The clearance of the Mong Kok site was a breakthrough in the authorities’ efforts to end the most tenacious protest movement in Hong Kong’s recent history, but lingering tensions and ongoing protests suggest major challenges remain to restoring the financial hub to normality.
“It’s not the end,” said Helen Lau, a young activist with a leather yellow ribbon around her neck. “We still have plan B; either to occupy other places or to step up our actions.”
Despite the clearance in Mong Kok, another major protest site remains in Admiralty district near the city’s government headquarters and legislature, as well as a smaller one in the shopping area of Causeway Bay.
The pro-democracy movement is showing signs of splintering, with radical voices calling for escalated action given the protracted stalemate during which China and Hong Kong have refused to meet any demands for greater democracy.
Late on Wednesday, police said seven officers had been arrested for “assault” in connection with the beating of a pro-democracy protester last month. A group of officers were caught on camera last month kicking and punching Ken Tsang, a social worker and member of the Civic Party.
Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu, James Pomfret and Venus Wu; Writing by John Ruwitch; Editing by Alex Richardson, Anne Marie Roantree and Mike Collett-White