HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong authorities began clearing away the last pro-democracy encampments near government headquarters on Wednesday, watched by a handful of demonstrators in a quiet but poignant end to nine months of street protests.
The so-called Occupy Central movement kicked off on Sept. 28, when tens of thousands of protesters streamed onto major highways in a push for full democracy, demonstrations that became the biggest political challenge to Beijing’s Communist Party leaders for decades.
The protesters dug in over the ensuing weeks, with hundreds of tents and marquees filled with free provisions and medical supplies mushrooming in the financial hub, as well as protest art and outdoor classrooms.
Hong Kong police cleared away most of the sites in mid-December but a small cluster of tents and hardcore protesters were allowed to remain on pavements until Wednesday, marking 270 straight days of demonstrations at the same site.
Officials from the Lands Department, dressed in hard hats and green vests, read out a notice calling for a final clearance of the remaining site on a rainy morning.
Two protesters were taken away by police, including one who was identified by demonstrators as Wang Dengyao, a Chinese activist who survived the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing.
There was little resistance from around 20 others who watched quietly as the site was cleared away, their sodden tents and possessions thrown into dump trucks.
“We didn’t succeed, but we also didn’t fail,” said 71-year-old Simon Wong, whose black T-shirt bore the slogan: “I want real universal suffrage”.
“I feel calm but I’ll also be missing this,” he said.
The protests failed to persuade China to allow a fully democratic vote for the city’s next leader in 2017, instead of a list of pre-screened, pro-Beijing candidates.
The clearance came six days after Hong Kong’s legislature vetoed a Beijing-backed electoral reform package that was criticized by pro-democracy lawmakers and activists as undemocratic.
The city’s pro-Beijing lawmakers failed to vote for the package in a mysterious, last-minute walk-out of the legislature in what was a setback for China’s Communist leaders.
Street tensions appear to have eased off, but radical protesters and “localists” demanding greater Hong Kong autonomy have vowed to keep fighting even as China shows signs of tightening its grip on the former British colony.
“The next step for us is to really move into the districts to try to re-awaken the moderate democrats ... and to never stop fighting for democracy,” said Benny Mok, 51, who had camped at the site for more than 250 nights.
“Hong Kong deserves better,” he said.
Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Paul Tait