HONG KONG — Hong Kong police used pepper spray to disperse pro-democracy activists Monday as the Asian financial center braced for a wave of protests against China’s decision to rule out full democracy.
On Sunday, the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) set the stage for a political showdown when it decided against letting voters freely choose Hong Kong’s next leader in 2017, leading scores of protesters to take to the streets.
Scuffles broke out Monday during a standoff at the entrance to a center where a senior Chinese official was explaining Beijing’s decision, prompting police to use pepper spray amid chaotic scenes inside and outside the venue.
Activists from the Occupy Central With Love and Peace movement have threatened to lock down Hong Kong’s financial district unless Beijing grants full democracy.
“Occupy Central is an illegal activity. If we give in, it will trigger more illegal activities,” said Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the NPC Standing Committee, who flew to Hong Kong to explain Beijing’s decision.
Pro-democracy activists inside the building heckled Li, shouting slogans and interrupting his speech.
Since Britain handed control of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the territory has enjoyed wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms of the kind not seen on the mainland under a policy of “one country, two systems.”
The activists want universal suffrage, but Communist Party rulers in Beijing say any candidate for the territory’s chief executive has to be first approved by a nominating panel — likely to be stacked with Beijing loyalists and making it almost impossible for an opposition democrat to get on the ballot.
If Hong Kong lawmakers voted down the package, governing the territory would become much more difficult, Li said. The next leader would again be chosen by a small committee without any form of popular vote.
Members of the pro-democracy camp were escorted out of the auditorium after they shouted and held up signs reading “shameful.”
Alex Chow, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, was also removed as he criticized Li.
“Hong Kong is our turf,” Chow shouted. “The NPC doesn’t represent us. Stop insulting us. Hong Kong people won’t be insulted by you again.”
About 100 activists had gathered for Li’s speech, some waving British colonial flags and banners with an “X” over the Chinese characters for “communism,” amid a heavy police presence. A group of Beijing loyalists stood nearby waving China’s flag.