Scuffles broke out between Occupy Central protesters and anti-protest groups on Monday, with local Hong Kong residents tearing down protest barriers in the heart of the city's business district.
Some locals said the demonstrators, who have occupied the streets for two weeks, are affecting local businesses and causing congestion. Angry taxi drivers opposed to the protests, which they said have negatively impacted business, rallied with a row of 12 taxis demanding an end to the protests.
"Open the roads," chanted a crowd including taxi and truck drivers. A truck with a crane on top attempted to remove protesters' barricades from one area until police eventually intervened.
"I used to support the movement, but then my business was affected ... what they did is useless anyway," said a taxi driver who identified himself as Lee, who estimated he had lost 60 percent of his business.
Police had earlier removed some barriers to relieve traffic congestions, but had said the protesters could stay. But anti-Occupy groups descended on the protest sites trying to disperse the activists.
Occupy activists said they believed the attacks were coordinated and may have involved crime gangs. Police eventually separated the two groups by forming a human barricade between them, but Hong Kong residents expect more flare-ups.
"We will stay and defend. We will stay here until the end," said 25-year-old pro-democracy protester John, who declined to provide his last name, as he repaired damaged barriers.
Protesters, mostly students, are calling for full democracy and have demanded the city's embattled leader, Leung Chun-ying, step down after Beijing in August ruled out completely free elections for Hong Kong's next leader in 2017.
Leung vowed on Sunday to remain in office and warned that the pro-democracy movement was out of control. He said there was "zero chance" that China's leaders in Beijing would change their decision limiting democracy in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, is ruled by China under a "one country, two systems" formula in which the city enjoys a degree of autonomy and freedom not seen on the mainland. Despite assurances that Hong Kong residents would be able to choose their own leader, Beijing ruled in August that only candidates approved by its nomination committee would be able to run in the next election for Hong Kong's chief executive.
Demonstrations against that decision escalated last month after police used tear gas and batons on protesters. Since then, police have been largely hands-off. Beijing's reaction to unrest in Hong Kong is likely being closely watched by residents in China's other restive regions.
China faces a long-term challenge in attempting to maintain authority over its periphery — from Tibet to Xinjiang to Hong Kong — regions that seek greater political, cultural and religious autonomy.
Beijing's hands-off approach in the Hong Kong protests is a departure from its handling of Uighur or Tibetan protests, where residents claim security forces regularly open fire on rallies and arrest activists.
The Hong Kong protests are being monitored by a large media presence, which may serve to hold security forces accountable for their actions — a protection demonstrations in Xinjiang and Tibet do not often enjoy.
Al Jazeera and wire services