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Hong Kong police cleared more barricades from a major city thoroughfare on Tuesday, exerting quiet pressure on pro-democracy protesters whose numbers and spirit appear to be running both high and low.
The police, equipped with bolt cutters and electric saws, dismantled the blockades with little confrontation with the demonstrators, largely students, who have been occupying the Queensway road for over two weeks. A police spokesman said that the roads were being cleared [paywall] due to worries over “public safety in terms of emergency vehicle access” and to ease the protests' effects on residents of the area, reports the Financial Times.
Protesters are demanding full and free democratic elections for Hong Kong's chief executive without interference by the Communist Party, which insists that candidates must be picked by a committee that protesters say is controlled by the party. The protesters have been peacefully occupying key regions of the former British colonial city in an effort to put pressure on Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to stand down.
The Financial Times writes that the police efforts to clear the roadway without directly confronting the demonstrators are "part of a government strategy to chip away at the protest movement without resorting to tactics that could inflame tensions and spark sympathy for the protesters."
One police officer said the government had told the police force to adopt a gentle approach. Two weeks ago police fired tear gas at protesters – a move that backfired by generating more support for the movement.
That policy was tested Monday when a group of people tried to tear down the barricades resulting in clashes with the protesters. The people claimed to be Chinese whose businesses were being hurt by the protests, reports The Washington Post.
“Open the roads,” chanted dozens of people unhappy with the sit-in, accusing the students of being tools of the West and not “real Chinese.”
“Don’t let them pass,” the pro-democracy demonstrators replied, accusing their opponents of not being Hong Kong natives. “Go back to the mainland,” they chanted. “Speak Cantonese.”
The protests have reflected growing tensions between Hong Kong natives and Chinese mainlanders, who have flooded into the territory since its handover from British rule in 1997.
The group eventually dispersed, after protesters held their ground and police kept the two sides apart. The protesters also responded Sunday and Monday in some places by starting to build their own bamboo barricades, according to The New York Times.
After police cleared the Queensway road today, one taxi driver told Reuters that the move was a positive one for his business, which has been hurt by the protests. But he said it was not enough.
"Reopening of (Queensway) is better than nothing at all as it allows more options to the drivers. But still it is not good enough and traffic will still be very heavy," said 53-year-old taxi driver Li Hung-on.
"My income was down by half in the past two weeks and drivers like us are still the victims. It would be good if all the roads resume normal."
Regardless of the protests' immediate success though, they highlight a flash point in relations between Hong Kong and the mainland that is not going away, writes The Christian Science Monitor. Peter Ford writes that many residents of Hong Kong, particularly the young, do not identify with mainland China and the Communist Party.
When the Hong Kong Transition Project, which has been monitoring public opinion since the handover, asked people last April what was the most important thing they would like to see protected and promoted, 65 percent said “Hong Kong’s identity as pluralistic and international.” Only 4 percent responded “China’s identity as ruled by the Communist party.”
Among those under 30, the picture was even more pronounced: 84 percent chose a pluralist Hong Kong, while just 2 percent wanted most to protect China’s identity.
Equally problematic for Beijing is the way in which young people increasingly identify themselves as “Hong Kong people” rather than as Chinese. The same April survey found that 55 percent of respondents under 30 defined themselves as a “Hong Kong person” and 30 percent as a “Chinese Hong Konger,” while 10 percent called themselves “Hong Kong Chinese” and 5 percent simply “Chinese.”
Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, a former chairman of the pro-democracy Civic party, told The Christian Science Monitor that the protests “have punched a big hole in the political landscape, and raised questions about Hong Kong’s core values that won’t be wished away.”