HONG KONG — Pro-democracy protesters were defiant in the face of attacks by opponents and warnings by the Hong Kong government to clear the streets, staging a massive rally Saturday evening in the downtown business district they’ve occupied for a week.
“Democracy now! Democracy in Hong Kong!” thousands chanted as speakers from the movement seeking wider political reforms for this former British colony urged them to persist in their campaign. The rally lasted hours, with participants at times clapping and cheering as a stream of speakers and singers addressed them and performed popular songs.
“We are not seeking revolution. We just want democracy!” said Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old student leader. “We hope there will be no violence,” he said. “It would be unfortunate if this movement ended with bloodshed and violence.”
After the rally ended, people grew nervous due to rumors that police would act to clear out the protesters in the middle of the night. But big crowds still filled the protest area after midnight.
Standoffs between the protesters and their antagonists grew ugly during the day, as the two sides traded insults and at times taunted police. The city’s leader said streets occupied by the protest must be opened back up by Monday.
Although the mostly student-led protesters have stuck to their pledges of non-violence, holding up their arms to show peaceful resistance, some shouted abuse at people who gathered to challenge their occupation of a major street in the gritty, blue-collar Mong Kok district, which is home to many migrants from the Chinese mainland.
“Go back to the mainland,” some shouted, cursing them in the local dialect of Cantonese.
Minor skirmishes broke out constantly, broken up by police or bystanders. Adding to the disorder, some residents dumped water from their apartments onto the people below.
The students accused police of failing to protect them from attacks Friday by mobs intent on driving them away, shouting “Black Police!” — a reference to their claim that the police had allied with “black societies,” or criminal gangs, to clear out the protesters. The claim was vehemently denied by the government.
The city’s top leader, Chief Secretary Leung Chun-ying, appeared on television Saturday evening to once again urge everyone to go home, saying things needed to get back to normal by Monday.
“There are many problems to be resolved in society, but the right way is through rational communication to seek common ground while holding back differences,” he said. “Not fighting on the streets, which makes things worse.”
On Friday night and early Saturday, police arrested 19 people during a night of running brawls in which at least 12 people and six officers were injured. Eight men were believed to have backgrounds linked to triads, or organized crime, said Senior Superintendent Patrick Kwok Pak-chung. Those arrested were facing charges of unlawful assembly, fighting in public and assault, Kwok said.
Officials vehemently denied rumors they might have coordinated with the gangs to clear the streets.
“Such rumors linking us to ‘black societies,’ are utterly unfair,” Hong Kong’s visibly agitated security chief, Lai Tung-kwok, told reporters.
Cheung Tak-keung, the deputy police superintendent, said the police were trying their best to maintain “buffer zones” between people of opposing views.
“The situation was not easy to handle. There were thousands of people,” Cheung said, noting that many of those gathered were just onlookers who could get caught up in a “very high risk activity.”
“We strongly condemn all violent acts,” he said, cautioning people to avoid such areas because “unsettled people’s emotions may cause more confrontations.”
The confrontations led protest leaders to call off planned talks with the government. Students and other activists object to China’s decision to require a committee of mostly pro-Beijing figures screen candidates for the city’s first-ever election of its top leader in 2017. They are also demanding Leung’s resignation.
With the talks suspended, the next steps were uncertain. Police have repeatedly urged everyone to clear the streets but have shown tolerance after the use of pepper spray and tear gas to disperse protesters last weekend just drew larger crowds.
The standoff in Mong Kok, across Victoria Harbor from the activists’ main protest encampment, was tense with opponents at times chanting “Pack Up!” at the mostly youthful protesters. At least some of the opponents are residents fed up with blocked streets and related inconveniences.
The opponents of the demonstrations are using blue ribbons to signal their support for the mainland Chinese government, while the pro-democracy protesters are wearing yellow ribbons.
Some people on the “blue ribbon” side rallied in Kowloon’s waterfront Tsim Sha Tsui. “Love Hong Kong” and “Support Police” they chanted, holding up flags and heart-shaped signs with the slogan, “Alliance in support of our police force.”
“Now the students are trying to control the government,” complained a man who gave only his first name, Jackie. “If there was a riot on Wall Street in America they wouldn’t tolerate such troublemaking.”
The Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the groups leading the protests that drew a peak crowd of tens of thousands of people earlier, said they saw no choice but to rescind their agreement to the talks Leung proposed. They demanded the government hold someone responsible for the scuffles Friday.
The allegations that organized crime members were involved fueled jitters at the movement’s main camp, outside government headquarters.
“Many people are gathering here and they are very determined to unite against the triad members,” said Amy Ho, 21, who was studying translation at university.