HONG KONG – Hundreds of Hong Kong police used sledgehammers and chain saws to dismantle pro-democracy barricades near government offices and the city’s financial center Tuesday, a day after clashes broke out as anti-protest groups tried to reclaim roads.
The police operation was the latest in two days to dismantle barricades after two weeks of protests, with the stalemate fueling frustrations in the Asian financial hub and draining public support for the pro-democracy movement.
Police, criticized for using tear gas and batons in the first 24 hours of the protests, have adopted a more patient approach, counting on protesters to come under public pressure to clear some of the city’s major arteries.
Some of the city’s most powerful tycoons had warned prior to the protests that any moves to occupy the heart of the city could undermine Hong Kong’s stability. They have remained largely silent since the protests kicked off.
Tensions are expected to escalate further Wednesday when taxi drivers, who say business has dropped by around 50 percent, have threatened to remove barricades if protesters have not cleared them by then. Taxi and truck drivers were among those who tried to dismantle barricades Monday.
Hundreds of people, some wearing surgical masks and armed with crowbars and cutting tools, dismantled barricades and scuffled with protesters Monday after police removed some barriers to relieve traffic congestion.
Police say the removal of barricades is aimed at easing congestion and that protesters can stay, but many students believe Monday’s clashes were coordinated and involved triad organized crime groups and people paid to cause trouble. They said some police stood by or did not act quickly enough.
Student protesters reinforced barricades late on Monday, erecting 4-meter-high bamboo scaffolding along one major thoroughfare, while others mixed concrete to pour over the foundations of their road blocks. Makeshift spears made of bamboo protruded from some of the barricades.
On Tuesday, police with chain saws cut down the towering bamboo structures and used sledgehammers to smash cemented barricades outside the Bank of China’s Hong Kong headquarters and next to the office of Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing.
“We will rebuild them after the police remove them,” said protester Bruce Sze. “We won’t confront the police physically.”
Scores of office workers streamed out onto the streets to watch as police tore down the barricades.
The protesters, mostly students, are demanding full democracy for the former British colony and have called on the city’s embattled leader, Leung Chun-ying, to step down after Beijing in August ruled out free elections for Hong Kong’s next leader in 2017.
China rules Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” formula that accords the former British colony a degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, with universal suffrage set as an eventual goal.
Leung has vowed to remain in office and warned that there was “zero chance” that China’s leaders in Beijing would change an August decision limiting democracy in Hong Kong.
Media groups and journalists have also been targeted by people opposed to the protests, triggering a statement by five press unions late on Monday condemning harassment against them.
Apple Daily, controlled by media magnate Jimmy Lai, a key supporter of the democracy movement, said the entrance to its offices was blocked, preventing distribution, and its website paralyzed for two days.
A spokeswoman at the International New York Times told Reuters on Tuesday that the distribution of its newspaper had also been disrupted due to a blocked road at the compound of the Apple Daily newspaper, where it is printed.