Hong Kong's bustling streets and financial heartland have been overwhelmed by tens of thousands of protesters after the pro-democracy group Occupy Central officially launched a mass civil disobedience movement.
Occupy Central had been threatening for weeks to hold protests aimed at paralyzing the city's financial and business center if China failed to meet demands for universal suffrage, and grant full and open elections in 2017 as promised.
Clashes between police and protesters began Friday, when hundreds of students swarmed Hong Kong's government headquarters and staged a two-night sit-in, after boycotting class for a week. The students were quickly joined by thousands of others, including Occupy organizers.
The movement's quickly swelling numbers prompted organizers to begin the official Occupy Central protest early Sunday, ahead of unconfirmed plans that the demonstrations would be staged Wednesday on China's National Day holiday.
By Sunday, the protests had largely moved away from the site of the students' mini sit-in, but a lone figure was seen holding ground at government headquarters, squaring off with police from behind metal barricades.
Videos show officers firing canisters of tear gas and squirting pepper spray at protesters who charged the police cordon surrounding the blocked-off Tamar protest zone in the city center Sunday. Police have threatened to use a "higher level of force" if the demonstrators do not "leave peacefully and orderly," local media reported.
But sight-crippling smoke and spray did not appear to deter the some 30,000 protesters that had turned up by Sunday afternoon, according to estimates from organizers. The crowd spilled onto some of the city's busiest streets, surrounding busses and bringing traffic to a halt.
Hong Kong "has changed to a new era so the people have to be awakened. It's no longer the old Hong Kong," one protester, W.T. Chung, 46, yelled at police, according to the Associated Press.
Police said at least 78 people had been arrested since demonstrations began Friday. The number included 63 men and 15 women, aged between 16 to 58.
On Saturday, police superintendent Steve Hui Chun-tak told local media that 11 security personnel at a nearby building and four policemen were injured, including one officer who received a 4-inch-deep gouge from an umbrella.
The Chinese government has called the demonstrations "illegal" and released a statement Sunday addressing the protests and Occupy Central's demands for Beijing to withdraw planned electoral reforms announced late last month.
The Hong Kong government is "resolute in opposing the unlawful occupation of the Central Government Offices or the Central District by 'Occupy Central,'" the statement read, adding it would "try all efforts in a bid to implement the election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage in 2017."
Since Hong Kong was handed back to Beijing in 1997 following 150 years of British colonial rule, the city's residents have enjoyed wider freedoms under the mainland policy of "one country two systems" than their mainland counterparts.
Until now, Hong Kong's leadership has been chosen by a select committee of mostly pro-China business tycoons, and the 2017 elections promised to deliver the city's first leader elected by popular democratic vote.
The recent clashes have stemmed from proposed changes to the electoral system announced by Beijing late last month, which would rule out the possibility of open nominations for a candidates. Under the reforms, the elections would be limited to two or three candidates that must first be approved by a nominating panel similar to the existing board in charge of overseeing the city's leadership. Critics say the move has essentially barred opposition democrats from the ballot.
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