Mass arrests in Hong Kong as police tear down democracy protesters' barricades

The police crackdown was widely expected as the protest movement has fizzled in recent weeks. Protesters insist that their movement for freer elections in Hong Kong will continue in another form. 

Tyrone Siu/Reuters
A police officer drives through an area previously blocked by pro-democracy protesters near Hong Kong's government headquarters on Thursday. Local authorities cleared the main protest site earlier in the day, marking an end to more than two months of street demonstrations.

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Hong Kong police dismantled tents and protest encampments today in the city's downtown, a move that marks the end of more than two months of pro-democracy demonstrations that failed to force the hand of China's rulers in Beijing. However, many in and outside the protest movement say their occupation will leave a lasting impact in Hong Kong.

Police officers issued warnings over loudspeakers, and officials descended on the densely packed camps in the Admiralty district from multiple directions. Protesters were told they must leave or face arrest, as tents, banners, and barricades were taken away by police and trucks with cranes.

Banners reading “We’ll be back” hung from bridges and the warning was scrawled on the street in chalk, USA Today reports.

At least four members of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, a key protest organizer, were arrested, as well as other prominent local figures like pop singer Denise Ho, USA Today reports. It wasn’t clear if the police would formally charge all the protesters it led away from the encampment, according to The New York Times, and police did not release an official number of arrests.

The 11-week demonstrations represented the biggest challenge to China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong since the former British colony reverted to China in 1997. Student-led protesters took to the streets in opposition to China’s veto power over the nomination for the city's political leader, who is up for election in 2017.

Although Beijing made no concessions to protesters during their weeks of largely peaceful sit-ins, Reuters reports the demonstrations have had an impact:

Despite the clearance, the Occupy movement has been a social watershed, with people pushing back against increasing control and standing up to Beijing to preserve democracy and freedoms largely denied on the mainland….

"The movement has been an awakening process for Hong Kong. People who weren't interested in politics before are now and aren't afraid to get arrested, especially the young people," said Labour Party legislator Lee Cheuk-yan.

At their peak, the protests drew tens of thousands of people; some still remain in the Causeway Bay shopping district. Another large protest camp in the Mong Kok area was cleared last month, which means the Admiralty site was the last large protest camp standing, reports the Times.

Protest leaders say the dismantling of the camps won’t mark the end of the movement.

Alex Chow, leader of the Federation of Students, told reporters while he awaited his arrest that there would be more civil disobedience in the future. “The Umbrella Movement has changed Hong Kong’s political and protest culture,” Mr. Chow said. “More mass movements will be coming.”

Students say they will keep fighting for free elections in Hong Kong, and that they intend to pressure government officials during upcoming public consultations on electoral reforms, Bloomberg reports.

“If you look at the results [of the protests], it is a failure because the government didn’t respond to us,” a social worker, CY Chow, told Bloomberg.  “But we are at the same time successful because we have awakened many Hong Kong people.”

Leo, a window repair worker, told Quartz that he saw the protests as a partial victory.

“The movement let people know more clearly about the changes that happened in the past 17 years,” he said. “The next time when there is a movement, we will have more peoples’ support.”

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