Hong Kong (AFP) – Hong Kong student leaders Friday called off talks with the government aimed at bringing an end to mass pro-democracy demonstrations that have paralyzed the city, after violent clashes broke out with pro-Beijing crowds at their protest camps.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students made the announcement after pro-government crowds descended on two of their camps on Friday, tearing down their tents and barricades in what activists said was orchestrated violence by paid thugs from “triad” criminal gangs.
“There is no other option but to call off talks,” the students said in a statement.
“Everybody saw what happened today,” they added. “The government and police turned a blind eye to violent acts by the triads targeting peaceful Occupy protesters”.
The embattled government of Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying had promised talks in a bid to end the protests that have brought swathes of the semi-autonomous Chinese city to a standstill since Sunday, with tens of thousands of people filling major highways demanding Beijing grant them free elections.
There were angry scenes in the packed Mong Kok and Causeway Bay shopping districts as pro-democracy protesters faced off with large crowds of opponents, with police struggling to keep the situation under control.
Police said there had been two arrests and defended their response to the chaotic scenes, with senior superintendent Kong Man-keung telling reporters the force had “deployed a lot of manpower to control the situation”.
Protesters reacted angrily to the lack of arrests, saying pro-Beijing thugs had been freely allowed to attack their camps. The crowds in Mong Kok chanted “Bring out the handcuffs!” late into the night.
Police officers were seen escorting a man from the scene with his faced covered in blood.
There were widespread allegations of sexual assault in the densely-packed crowds, with three girls wearing plastic rain ponchos seen being bundled into a police van in tears after apparently being assaulted at the Causeway Bay protest.
“I urgently want to express to all citizens, no matter what attitude you have towards Occupy, you still have to remain calm, and not use violence or disrupt order under any situation,” Leung said in a televised message.
While the United States, Europe and Japan have all expressed their concern at the scenes playing out in the key Asian financial hub, China’s Communist authorities insisted there is “no room to make concessions on important principles”.
The protesters have massed on the streets in fury at China’s announcement in August that while Hong Kongers can vote for their next leader in 2017, only candidates vetted by Beijing will be able to stand — a decision dismissed as “fake democracy” by campaigners.
Demonstrators had set a midnight Thursday ultimatum for Leung to resign and for Beijing to abandon the proposals to vet candidates.
Leung — seen by the protesters as a Beijing stooge — refused to quit, but in a dramatic televised appearance shortly before the midnight deadline he appointed his deputy to sit down with a prominent students’ group that has been at the vanguard of the protests.
Mistrust was rife that Leung was merely trying to buy time in the hope that Hong Kong’s residents will tire of the disruption caused by the mass sit-ins.
Friday’s clashes broke out as the city returned to work after a two-day public holiday.
“I don’t support Occupy Central. We have to work and make money. Occupy is just a game,” said a construction worker who gave his name as Mr Lee.
“Give us Mong Kok back, we Hong Kongers need to eat!” yelled another man removing the barricades there.
Individuals from both sides pushed and shoved each other as water bottles were thrown, and one anti-Occupy protester chanted: “Beat them to death, good job police!”
Store owners have told of a massive downturn in business after days of demonstrations.
“I supported (the pro-democracy activists) at first but when they escalated their action, they have gone too far,” said Janice Lam, 54, an onlooker in Causeway Bay.
Hong Kong Finance Secretary John Tsang warned that if the unrest persists, the city’s status as one of the world’s most important trading hubs could be under threat.
“If this situation were to persist we’re going to see some damage to our system,” he told a press conference.
He added that extended protests could seriously dent “confidence in the market system in Hong Kong — that would bring permanent damage that we could not afford”.
AFP Photo/Anthony Wallace