HONG KONG (Reuters) - Over 100 pro-democracy students stormed Hong Kong government headquarters and scuffled with police late on Friday in protest against the Chinese government’s tightening grip on the former British colony.
Police used pepper spray on protesters who forced their way through a gate and scaled high fences surrounding the compound to oppose Beijing’s decision to rule out free elections for the city’s leader in 2017.
Student leader Joshua Wong was dragged away by police kicking, screaming and bleeding from his arm as protesters chanted and struggled to free him.
“Hong Kong’s future belongs to you, you and you,” Wong, a thin 17-year-old with dark-rimmed glasses and bowl-cut hair, told cheering supporters hours before he was taken away.
“I want to tell C.Y. Leung and Xi Jinping that the mission of fighting for universal suffrage does not rest upon the young people, it is everyone’s responsibility,” he shouted, referring to Hong Kong’s and China’s leaders.
“I don’t want the fight for democracy to be passed down to the next generation. This is our responsibility,”
About 100 protesters linked arms as police surrounded them with metal barricades, some chanting “civil disobedience”.
In the early hours of Saturday, about a thousand students remained outside the government headquarters.
At least four people were carried off on stretchers with slight injuries. The scene marked the biggest escalation in street protests since Beijing’s decision in late August to rule out free elections for Hong Kong.
About 100 protesters remained within the compound while thousands of supporters outside chanted: “Free the people.”
“We’re still demanding universal suffrage,” said Hong Kong Federation of Students leader Alex Chow.
The protest came after more than 1,000 school pupils rallied to support university students demanding full democracy for Hong Kong, capping a week-long campaign that has seen classroom strikes and a large cut-out depicting the city’s leader as the devil paraded in public.
Earlier on Friday, hundreds of school children, some barely in their teens and dressed in school uniforms, assembled in a park close to government headquarters sporting yellow ribbons and stickers saying “smash Chinese Communist Party dictatorship”.
“We have to act right now and not sit back. Too many people in Hong Kong are left cold by politics, but that’s not right. These politics will deeply affect our future prospects,” said 17-year-old Louis Yeung.
About 200 students camped outside the home of chief executive Leung Chun-ying on Thursday night after he ignored their 48-hour ultimatum to meet them to discuss the special administrative region’s democratic future as tensions escalate.
After work on Friday evening, thousands more people rallied to the side of the 1,500 or so secondary pupils who had skipped classes, bringing the week-long class boycott to a close.
In the latest tit-for-tat protest, a pro-Beijing group gathered next to the students singing patriotic songs and waving Chinese flags, underscoring a deepening divide over the path of electoral reforms in the Asian financial center.
“We must stop these people from destroying Hong Kong. They must learn to love China,” said a woman surnamed Leung, who declined to say where the group members, clad in yellow shirts and red caps, were from.
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 with a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China under a formula known as “one country, two systems”. Universal suffrage was set as an eventual goal.
But Beijing last month rejected demands for people to freely choose the city’s next leader in 2017, prompting threats from pro-democracy activists to shut down the Central financial district in a so-called Occupy Central campaign. China wants to limit elections to a handful of candidates loyal to Beijing.
A handful of parents accompanied their children on Friday, voicing support for the democracy campaign and slamming the Hong Kong government for rejecting demands for free elections.
“I am here to support my daughter because I think the Chinese government has lied to Hong Kong citizens and think we are stupid,” said a parent surnamed Lam.
The students’ ability to mobilize thousands to fight for democracy has made their support an increasingly important driver of the city’s burgeoning civil disobedience movement.
They plan an even larger Occupy Central blockade on Oct. 1 that organizers hope will escalate into one of most disruptive protests seen for decades in the financial hub.
Student leader Wong has already won one major victory against Beijing.
In 2012, when he was 15, he forced the Hong Kong government to shelve plans to roll out a pro-China national education scheme in the city’s schools by rallying 120,000 protesters.
“I think he understands the political realities of Hong Kong, but he also understands the psychology of the mob or the protest group,” said Matthew Torne, a British filmmaker who made a documentary about the national education protests.
Wong has grabbed newspaper headlines over the past few days, although not all have been flattering.
On Thursday, the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper ran a full-page story on Wong, accusing him of having close ties with forces in the United States and saying the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was trying to infiltrate Hong Kong schools.
Wong has denied the allegations.
Managing the former British colony is proving a challenge for Beijing, which is worried that calls for democracy could spread to cities on the mainland, threatening the Communist Party’s grip on power.
Additional reporting by Stefanie McIntyre, Venus Wu, Diana Chan and Kinling Lo; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Tom Heneghan