After deploying tear gas to break up pro-democracy demonstrators, police in Hong Kong warned late Sunday local time that they will use “a higher level of force” against the crowds of thousands if “public order” is not restored.
Demonstrators have gathered outside government headquarters near the city’s financial district calling for the Chinese government to grant democratic reforms in Hong Kong. Protesters raised their hands up in the air in a symbolic “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture which some observers saw as reminiscent of the recent response by protesters in Ferguson, Missouri over the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown.
Students – many of whom have already boycotted a week of classes – and activists began camping out on Friday, and were later joined by members of a civil disobedience movement known as Occupy Central.
Protesters told the Associated Press that the demonstrations were peaceful when riot police started to use pepper spray and launch tear gas canisters. That sent coughing protesters running in all directions, but many later reconvened vowing to keep the rally going. Police officers were wearing both helmets and respirators to protect them from the gas.
Government leaders in Hong Kong and Beijing called the demonstrations “unlawful” and “illegal” respectively, but many protesters say they will not waver.
“If today I don’t stand out, I will hate myself in future,” taxi driver Edward Yeung told Reuters. “Even if I get a criminal record,” he said, “it will be a glorious one.”
Hong Kong does have some autonomy from Beijing which took over sovereignty of the former British colony in 1997.
But Beijing has asserted more control in the city in recent months. This includes requiring Beijing’s approval of election candidates and allegations of intimidation from mainland officials on free business practices in Hong Kong, according to The Washington Post. Occupy Central vowed to protest the Chinese government’s actions back in June when the city’s Beijing-backed leader said a trio of reforms the group was suggesting failed to comply with existing laws, The New York Times reported.
Beijing has promised Hong Kong a free election to choose its leader by 2017, but pro-democracy supporters there and Chinese officials on the mainland have so far failed to agree on guidelines for such a vote.
Government officials in Hong Kong warned that the continued demonstrations may disrupt public transport in the financial hub on Monday, Reuters reported. Police have not used tear gas in Hong Kong in nearly a decade, according to NBC News. The tactic was last used in 2005 during World Trade Organization protests.
“We will fight until the end,” one protester told NBC News. “We will never give up.” Another protester – a student named Alexandra Wong – said, “We will not just say yes to whatever they do. We will fight for our rights, and fight for our democracy.”
Editors’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture seen in Hong Kong protests was reminiscent of the symbol favored by protesters in Ferguson.