Hong Kong police defend riot response

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Police in Hong Kong have defended their use of tear gas and other tactics to control protests that have paralysed the city’s financial district, appealing to the thousands gathered to demand more democracy to stop the unprecedented mass act of civil disobedience for the sake of safety and stability.

Crowds grew yesterday evening as people finishing work joined weary-looking students camped on major roads near the government headquarters and in several other parts of the city. Uniformed police manned barricades and looked on, preventing access to some buildings, but did not otherwise intervene.

Police said they used 87 rounds of tear gas on Sunday in what they said was a necessary but restrained response to protesters’ efforts to push through cordons and barricades. They said 41 people were injured, including 12 police officers.

Cheung Tak-keung, the assistant police commissioner for operations, told reporters yesterday: “Police cordon lines were heavily charged, by some violent protesters, so police had to use the minimum force in order to separate the distance at that moment between the protesters and also the police.”

Protesters donned rain capes, surgical masks and goggles, wrapped their heads and glasses in plastic and used umbrellas to shield themselves from the searing clouds of tear gas unleashed by police. Each time they fled, but returned in defiance. Late on Sunday, riot police withdrew and Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, issued a public appeal for everyone to go home and stop blocking traffic.

Across Victoria Harbour in Kowloon, crowds blocked a major intersection as young people climbed on to subway station exits and activists rallied the crowds.

While many Hong Kong residents support the calls for greater democracy – dubbed the “umbrella revolution” by some although the crowds’ demands fall far short of revolution – the unrest worries others.

“I strongly disagree with the protesters,” said an older woman who gave only her surname, Chan. “Those of us who came to the city 60 or 70 years ago had nothing and we worked and suffered so much to make Hong Kong the rich city it is today. And now the protesters have made our society unstable. For me, being able to eat and sleep is already a luxury. I don’t need democracy.”

Many younger Hong Kong residents have much higher expectations. Raised in an era of plenty and with no experience of the political turmoil of past decades in mainland China, they are demanding universal suffrage and protesting against Beijing’s decision last month that candidates in the city’s first-ever election for the top leader must be hand-picked by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing tycoons, a move many residents of the former British colony view as reneging on promises to allow greater democracy in the semi-autonomous territory.

The Foreign Office has confirmed it is carefully monitoring the situation. A Foreign Office spokesman said the British Government was “concerned” about the events there and highlighted people’s right to protest.

He went on: “It is Britain’s long-standing position, as a co-signatory of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, that Hong Kong’s prosperity and security are underpinned by its fundamental rights and freedoms,”