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Clashes in Hong Kong as pro-democracy protests escalate

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BEIJING – Clashes between Hong Kong police and protesters overnight Sunday and Monday morning marked a violent escalation for the more than two month-old pro-democracy movement in the South China port city, where many residents resent the restrictions that Beijing has set on the territory’s next leadership elections in 2017.

To increase pressure on Hong Kong authorities, who have made zero concessions to protesters’ demands but allow major thoroughfares to remain blocked, a leading student group urged protesters Sunday night to surround government headquarters in Admiralty, close to the main protest site in the city’s financial district.

Running battles ensued for hours as riot police deployed pepper spray, batons and water hoses to stop activists storming government buildings and laying siege to the office of Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying. Some protesters held yellow umbrellas, the symbol of the pro-democracy movement, and many wore hard hats, masks and goggles to ward off the effects of pepper spray.

Photos on social media showed protesters bloodied by the police action, and at least one police officer being stretchered away. Police Senior Superintendent Tsui Wai-hung said 40 protesters had been arrested. Authorities would not allow the road beside Leung’s office to remain blocked, he said.
Between 10 p.m. Sunday and 8:15 a.m. Monday, 40 people were hospitalized, bringing the total to 518 of people sent to accident and emergency wards since the protests began in late September, reported the South China Morning Post newspaper.

Fire trucks rushed Monday to the nearby headquarters of the Chinese military,after smoke was seen, but it was not immediately known if the blaze was connected to the protests.

“The action was aimed at paralyzing the government’s operation,” said Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the movement’s key organizers. “The government has been stalling … and we believe we need to focus pressure on the government headquarters, the symbol of the government’s power.”

The mayhem took place under the festive shine of Hong Kong’s many neon-strewn skyscrapers. “How ironic. Christmas lights are shining but here we stand fighting for universal suffrage,” said Kevin Suen, a university student. He told the South China Morning Post he was not afraid of the police. “Two months on, I’ve got used to the pattern. We advance, police use pepper spray or batons and we step back. Those behind then [go] forward.”Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to mainland Chinese control in 1997 with promises of a high degree of autonomy. The protests were sparked by China’s insistence on using a pro-Beijing panel to screen candidates for the 2017 poll, thereby bringing into question China’s boast that it will represent Hong Kong’s first ever experience of universal suffrage.

“I really want to have real elections for Hong Kong because I don’t want the Chinese government to control us, our minds, anything,” protester Ernie Kwok, 21, a maintenance worker and part-time student, told the Associated Press. Last week over 100 people were arrested as authorities dismantled the Mong Kok protest site, across the harbor from Admiralty.

The movement, one of the strongest challenges to Chinese Communist Party rule since the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing and other cities, drew over 100,000 participants in its early weeks, but support has since weakened, and some residents are angry at the continued disruption to traffic, businesses and daily life.

A British lawmakers’ committee has been warned by the Chinese Embassy in London that its members would be refused entry into Hong Kong if they proceed with an inquiry into the city’s relations with the U.K. since the handover of sovereignty to China.

Richard Ottaway, chairman of Parliament’s committee on foreign affairs, said the Chinese authorities were acting in an “overtly confrontational manner”, and he would seek an emergency parliamentary debate Monday on the development.

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