HONG KONG -- Hundreds of people opposed to Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrations converged on one of the movement's main sites Friday, prompting some of the ugliest scenes of violence yet in the past week of protests.
In the early afternoon on Friday, opponents of the demonstrations moved en masse against the occupation site in the neighborhood of Mong Kok, a popular shopping district across the harbor from Hong Kong. They dismantled tents and removed the protesters' supplies. Scuffles broke out, with reports of roving street battles between protesters and their opponents. On social media, some posted images of elderly men who had supposedly harassed female students at the protest site.
A delayed police intervention led to the evacuation of many of the protesters from their now largely dismantled camp, and the dispersal of the mob that had set upon them. But, as night fell and news of the clashes spread, hundreds of people supporting the protests massed in Mong Kok in what amounted to a counter-counter-protest, chanting slogans in defense of the students and against pro-Beijing forces and the police.
The episode marks a grim moment in what's been a historic week in Hong Kong politics. For days, the demonstrators had staged peaceful sit-ins around government sites, calling for the resignation of Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, and the promotion of genuine democratic reforms. All day and night, they have defied the city's police by continuing their occupations. On Friday they needed the police to protect them from crowds of people who wanted to attack them.
The anger that's followed is a sign of a deeper polarization in the Chinese territory. Speculation was rife on social media and among pro-democracy activists that the counter-protest was a planned action organized by pro-Beijing interests in the city. According to the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's main English language daily, the anti-occupy crowd appeared, at least initially, to have been directed by a women shouting into a megaphone in Mandarin Chinese.
Many are also questioning why it took so long for the police to properly calm the situation. For hours, only a thin cordon of officers separated what remained of the occupy protesters' camp from an angry mob that, by late afternoon, had grown so big that it hemmed the demonstrators in on all sides.
The occupy protesters were led out by the police in waves but had to run through a gauntlet of abuse and flailing arms. It's unclear how many were injured over the course of the afternoon or whether the police have arrested any of those implicated in the clashes.
By the evening, the tables had turned. Crowds wanted the police to account for not preventing the attacks and denounced supposed pro-Beijing thugs.
Meanwhile, in the Admiralty area, the site of the main occupation in Hong Kong, student leaders called on those protesting in Mong Kok to abandon the camp and join them across the harbor. In a statement posted on its Facebook page, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the main organizations behind the protests, said the "government and police have allowed triad members to violently attack peaceful occupiers" and pulled out of talks with Hong Kong's government aimed at resolving the students' demands.
The protests flared late last week in opposition to plans for Chinese officials to vet candidates for elections in Hong Kong, which was handed over to Beijing in 1997. The showdowns soon evolved into an ideological confrontation over whether Western-looking Hong Kong should retain some degree of autonomy from the central government — a concession Beijing appears unwilling to make.
Chinese authorities said Friday in a front-page editorial in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, that it fully trusted Hong Kong chief executive Leung and that the protests were “doomed to failure."
Friday was the first day many Hong Kong residents returned to work after a two-day holiday although the central government closed its offices, telling workers to work from home. There was a sense that the protest was losing momentum and that the ranks of those committed to occupations in various parts of the city were diminishing.
But the new round of violence could galvanize the tens of thousands of young people who have given the protests life.