Mass protest in Hong Kong pushes democratic reform amid anger at Beijing

Tens of thousands take to the streets, hundreds arrested, after China reasserts its control over the financial hub

Hundreds of people were arrested in Hong Kong Wednesday, hours after tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents marched through the streets of the former British colony in a rally for greater democracy that cames amid swirling anger over recent warnings by Beijing that it holds ultimate authority over the southern Chinese financial hub.

The participants were calling for greater reform allowing residents to elect their own leaders.

Although the large crowd appeared peaceful during the day, an all-night sit-in on the heels of the event ended with hundreds of police forcibly removing protesters from the Central business district on Wednesday as the crowd chanted "I have the right to protest. We don't need police permission." 

"Our purpose is first universal suffrage and second to let the government respond to Hong Kong citizens' voice for democracy," said Frank Chio, a representative of the Hong Kong Federation of Students. The sit-in drew more than 1,000 people, according to Reuters.

Protestors were bundled, kicking and screaming, onto buses which took them to a police training school. It was not clear how long they would be detained. More than 500 were arrested, according to the Associated Press.

Police said 98,600 people joined Tuesday's rally at its peak, while organizers said 510,000 turned out, the highest estimates in a decade. Hong Kong University researchers put the number at between 154,000 and 172,000.

The protest came days after nearly 800,000 residents voted in a mock referendum aimed at bolstering support for full democracy.

Ahead of the rally, a small group of protesters burned a copy of a White Paper released by China's Cabinet earlier this month that has been the source of anger among residents. The policy document said that Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy is not inherent but is authorized by the central government and therefore must be subservient to its needs.

"After China's State Council issued the White Paper, the Basic Law became a figurehead," said activist Derek Chan, referring to the mini-constitution that guarantees Hong Kong can keep a high degree of control over its own affairs under the principle of "one country, two systems."

Chan and other protesters carried a mock coffin and banner reading "RIP Hong Kong" outside a flag-raising ceremony attended by officials to mark the anniversary of the handover of power from London to Beijing on July 1, 1997.

China's communist leaders have pledged to start allowing Hong Kong residents to vote for the city's leader in 2017, though it insists candidates be vetted by a Beijing-friendly committee like the one that has handpicked all leaders since the handover.

But pro-democracy activists, encouraged by the strong turnout for their informal referendum, vow to shut down the city's financial district if the government fails to come up with electoral reforms that don't meet international standards.

The fallout over the White Paper has added to the widening rift between Hong Kong and the mainland. Hong Kongers’ mistrust of the central government in Beijing and its policies toward the city have spiked to record highs, according to opinion surveys released separately Monday by two universities.

That sentiment was evident at the march on Tuesday.

"We can see that Beijing is eroding the autonomy of Hong Kong,” said Johnson Yeung, one of the organizers of the protest.  “We want to show we don't fear central government oppression.”

Wire services

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