Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying said police had been tolerant but would now take “resolute action”, suggesting that patience may have finally run out.
Chaos erupted as commuters made their way to work, with hundreds of student-led protesters surrounding Admiralty Center, which houses offices and retail outlets, in a stand-off with police. The central government offices and the legislature were forced to close in the morning, as were scores of shops.
The latest flare-up, during which police charged protesters with batons and pepper spray, underscored the frustration of protesters at Beijing’s refusal to budge on electoral reforms and grant greater democracy to the former British colony.
“Some people have mistaken the police’s tolerance for weakness,” Leung told reporters. “I call for students who are planning to return to the occupation sites tonight not to do so.”
He did not respond when asked if police would clear the sites on Monday.
Hong Kong Federation of Students leader Alex Chow said the protesters had intended to paralyze government headquarters.
“The plan was a failure on the whole, given that even if some places were occupied, they were cleared by the police immediately,” Chow said.
The democracy movement represents one of the biggest threats for China’s Communist Party leadership since Beijing’s bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy student protests in and around Tiananmen Square.
Financial Secretary John Tsang said the protests had damaged Hong Kong’s international image and hurt investor confidence, adding the city’s economic growth could be lower than the government’s forecast of 2.2 percent. The territory also reported a slowdown in monthly retail sales.
Hundreds of riot police scattered the crowds in several rounds of heated clashes overnight, forcing protesters back with pepper spray and batons.
Scores of volunteer medics attended to numerous injured, some who lay unconscious and others with blood streaming from head gashes. Police said at least 40 arrests were made.
The unrest came as British lawmakers said they had been told by the Chinese Embassy they would not be allowed to enter Hong Kong as part of an inquiry into Britain’s relations with its former colony and progress towards democracy.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that gave it some autonomy from the mainland and an undated promise of universal suffrage.
The protesters are demanding free elections for the city’s next leader in 2017 rather than the vote between pre-screened candidates that Beijing has said it would allow.
The Hong Kong rallies drew more than 100,000 on to the streets at their peak. Numbers have since dwindled and public support for the movement has waned.