HONG KONG — Police cleared the remaining barricades from one of Hong Kong’s largest protest sites Wednesday and arrested two pro-democracy leaders as authorities stepped up their efforts to end the two-month-long civil disobedience campaign.
Hundreds of protesters chanted for “full democracy” as workers in red caps and “I love Hong Kong” T-shirts began clearing the metal and wooden barricades in the shopping streets of Mong Kok, a crowded working-class neighborhood that has become a flash point between protesters and opponents during the occupation.
The protests and clashes — which began over Beijing’s controls over Hong Kong elections — increased into a wider challenge over central government control in the former British colony and whether its traditions of relative freedoms can endure.
Authorities opened dialogue with demonstrators, but have refused to significantly change policies over the administration of Hong Kong, which was turned over by Britain in 1997.
On Wednesday, police in helmets soon waved away the workers and took over the operation, gathering up more barricades, as well as tents, canopies and other debris. Onlookers clapped and cheered the police as they cleared the final obstructions.
“You are kids, and the whole of society does not support you,” one woman shouted at the protesters.
The operation was carried out after taxi drivers won a court case demanding the streets be cleared. Public opinion has turned against the civil disobedience campaign the longer it has dragged on, although support remains strong for the protesters’ goals.
Riot police and protesters faced off intermittently during the day, with officers slowly pushing activists back and arresting anyone who failed to retreat quickly enough.
Among those arrested were Joshua Wong, the 18-year-old protester who is the most recognizable face of the movement, and Lester Shum, one the leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, who took part in talks with the government last month.
Wong and Shum were also both detained at the start of the protest movement in late September and held for a day or two before being released. At the time, the arrests — as well as the use of tear gas by the police — had generated a wave of sympathy for the student movement. It was not clear, however, if the detentions would have the same effect now.
Police spokesman Steve Hui said a total of 148 people had been arrested in two days of clashes in Mong Kok, for offenses ranging from contempt of court, obstructing police officers carrying out their duties, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly, with at least one person held for possessing an offensive weapon. About 20 police officers were hurt in the worst of the confrontations on Tuesday, police said.
The main protest site at Admiralty, in the heart of Hong Kong’s financial and government hub, remains largely untouched, with thousands of tents still pitched there. But it’s widely believed it is only a matter of time before police also move in there to clear the streets.
The protests have sharply divided opinion in Hong Kong. Many young people tend to support the occupation, and older people are often opposed.
Tensions have been highest in Mong Kok, with protesters facing abuse and sometimes violence from opponents.
A previous police attempt to clear streets in Mong Kok had foundered in October, after thousands of protesters thronged the streets, but this time the police came in greater numbers and with more determination.
“You can’t defeat the protesters’ hearts!” screamed Liu Yuk-lin, a 52-year-old protester in a hard hat holding a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the movement, as she stood before lines of police, according to the Reuters news agency.
The clearance operation lasted about three hours, and traffic began flowing normally through an area that had been blocked since protesters began calling for more democracy in late September.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students accused the government of violence and of “stepping on people’s demands” after refusing to make any significant concessions to their demands.
“We have tried every method of communication, but that road has ended,” the group said in a statement. “If the government continues like this, we will have to escalate our actions.”
Fei Ko, 53, said the occupation had disrupted his daily commute and his wife’s tourism business.
“We are all citizens that have rights to use the roads, and police better clear them,” he said.
Mee Li, a 40-year-old who works in hotel services, said the police had been very tolerant for two months. “The police method of clearance is right. There is no such thing as too much violence,” she said. “If police don’t act, the protesters won’t retreat.”
Denyer reported from Beijing. Deane reported from London.