HONG KONG (Reuters) - Pro-democracy protesters faced off against supporters of Chinese rule in Hong Kong’s teeming Mong Kok district early on Saturday, in a tense confrontation that has undermined hopes for talks aimed at ending a week of turmoil.
Scuffles broke out late on Friday between people demanding full democracy in the former British colony, including a free voting system when they come to choose a new leader in 2017, and residents who want the demonstrations to end.
Protesters said they believed criminal gangs, or Triads, whose base is in the densely populated Mong Kok, were involved.
Police intervened to prevent an escalation in the violence, but a rowdy crowd of around two thousand filled a major intersection in the small hours of Saturday and the atmosphere remained highly charged as police officers in riot gear tried to keep them under control.
Demonstrations across Hong Kong have ebbed and flowed since Sunday, when police used pepper spray, tear gas and batons to break them up in the worst unrest in Hong Kong since the former British colony was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997.
At times, tens of thousands of people gathered to block roads and buildings in central areas, bringing them to a virtual standstill.
Student activists, established protest groups and ordinary Hong Kongers have joined forces to present Beijing with one of its biggest political challenges since it violently crushed pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989.
One of the main student groups behind the “Occupy Central” protest movement said it would pull out of planned talks with the Hong Kong government, because it believed authorities had colluded in the attacks on demonstrators in Mong Kok.
“The government and police today connived in the attack by Triads ... on peaceful occupiers, so they have shut the way to dialogue and must bear the consequences,” the Hong Kong Federation of Students said in a strongly worded statement.
The notorious Triads operate bars, nightclubs and massage parlors across Mong Kok, an area of high-rise apartment blocks some distance from the main protest areas.
Witnesses said anti-Triad police wearing trademark black vests were active in the area on Friday.
Police have defended their handling of fighting in the area, saying they had exercised “dignity and restraint and tried our best to keep the situation under control”.
But Amnesty International issued a statement criticizing them for “(failing) in their duty to protect hundreds of peaceful pro-democracy protesters from attacks by counter demonstrators.”
Earlier this week, Hong Kong’s leader Leung Chun-ying rejected protesters’ demands to resign, and he and his Chinese government allies made clear they would not back down.
He did, however, offer talks with leaders of a movement that has shaken Hong Kong’s image as a stable financial hub.
Kit Lui, a 32-year-old restaurant owner sitting under a tent in the middle of the Mong Kok crowd, said she understood why people blamed protesters for harming the economy, but that it was a price worth paying.
“No pain, no gain,” she said. “Yes, maybe these few days the economy will be hurt, but if we don’t speak up this time the situation will get worse and worse. It’s not the future that we want to see. We are worried about our future.
“Frankly speaking, I don’t know where this revolution will go,” she added, reflecting growing uncertainty among the pro-democracy movement, as numbers at some protest sites dwindle and public displeasure with the demonstrations mounts.
Teacher Victor Ma, 42, summed up the mood of many residents: “We are all fed up and our lives are affected. You don’t hold Hong Kong citizens hostage because it’s not going to work. That’s why the crowd is very angry here.”
China rules Hong Kong through a “one country, two systems” formula underpinned by the Basic Law, which accords Hong Kong some autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland and has universal suffrage as an eventual goal.
But Beijing decreed on Aug. 31 it would vet candidates who want to run for chief executive at an election in 2017, angering democracy activists, who took to the streets.
While Leung made an apparent concession by offering talks, Beijing restated its resolute opposition to the protests and a completely free vote in Hong Kong.
Facing separatist unrest in far-flung and resource-rich Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing is unlikely to give way in Hong Kong, fearful that calls for democracy there could spread to the mainland, especially if successful.
The economic impact of the unrest has begun to be felt.
Hong Kong’s benchmark share index, the Hang Seng, plunged 7.3 percent in September, in part because of the uncertainty surrounding the protests, and was down 2.6 percent on the week on Friday.
Luxury goods companies have taken a substantial hit, analysts say, with wealthy Chinese avoiding Hong Kong and going to other cities to shop instead.
Additional reporting by Charlie Zhu, Joseph Campbell, Donny Kwok, James Pomfret, Bobby Yip, Irene Jay Liu, Farah Master, Diana Chan, Clare Baldwin, Kinling Lo, Diana Chan, Twinnie Sui, Venus Wu and Jason Subler in HONG KONG; Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall