Hong Kong activists start ‘Occupy Central’ protest

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong activists kicked off a long-threatened mass civil disobedience protest early Sunday to challenge Beijing over restrictions on voting reforms, a surprise move that further escalates the battle for democracy in the former British colony after police arrested dozens of student demonstrators.

Organizers of “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” said they were starting their protest by continuing the “current occupation” of the streets outside government headquarters begun earlier by a separate group of student demonstrators that drew tens of thousands of people at its peak around midnight Saturday.

The Occupy Central movement had originally planned a mass sit-in to paralyze the Asian financial hub’s central business district on Wednesday, but organizers moved up the start of their protest and changed the location in an apparent bid to harness momentum from the student rally outside the government complex in the southern Chinese city.

A massive crowd turned out to support the student protesters who had stormed into a courtyard in the government complex late Friday, scuffling with police officers wielding pepper spray. Police arrested at least 74 people, including some in their teens. However, momentum seemed to fade after Occupy Central’s announcement, with many young people leaving the scene. Others appeared determined to remain in place until police officers move in to clear them out.

More than 1,000 exhausted and weary protesters — most of them students — remained at the scene hours after Occupy Central’s announcement. Many of them slept as hundreds of police officers watched over the scene. The protesters had arranged metal crowd-control barricades originally brought in by authorities to defend their position, placing them around the protest zone. They donned goggles and plastic wrap to protect against pepper spray.

Democracy supporters are demanding that China’s Communist leaders allow fully democratic elections in 2017.

China, which took control of the former British colony in 1997, has promised that Hong Kong’s top leader can be chosen through universal suffrage. But tensions over Hong Kong’s political future boiled over after China’s legislature last month ruled out letting the public nominate candidates, instead insisting they be screened by a committee of Beijing loyalists similar to the one that currently picks the city’s leader.

Hong Kong’s young people have been among the most vocal supporters of full democracy in recent years, fueled by anger over widening inequality. They also fear that Beijing’s tightening grip is eroding the city’s rule of law and guaranteed civil liberties unseen on the mainland such as freedom of speech.

Organizers of Occupy Central, a non-violent protest movement, said they want Beijing to abandon its decision and the Hong Kong government to resume political reform consultations

“The courage of the students and members of the public in their spontaneous decision to stay has touched many Hong Kong people,” the group said in a statement. “Yet, the government has remained unmoved. As the wheel of time has reached this point, we have decided to arise and act.”

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