HONG KONG – Hong Kong police fired beanbag rounds and used pepper spray in skirmishes with pro-democracy protesters Tuesday night, broadcaster RTHK said on Wednesday, as unrest that has gripped the Chinese-ruled city for months showed little sign of abating.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets since mid-June in sometimes violent protests calling for greater democracy in the former British colony, posing a direct challenge to the central government in Beijing.
Riot police cleared demonstrators from outside the Mong Kok police station and in Prince Edward metro station, with one person taken out on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over his face, government-funded RTHK reported.
Metro stations have often become the front line in battles between masked protesters and police, deepening the biggest political crisis in the financial hub since the handover of power from Britain to China in 1997.
The continued unrest is piling pressure on Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who told a group of businesspeople last week that she had “very, very limited” ability to end the crisis and it had been elevated “to a national level,” a reference to the leadership in Beijing. Her comments in an audio recording of the meeting were reported by Reuters on Tuesday.
Lam also said in the recording that she would step down if she had a choice, fueling protesters’ claims that the partial autonomy granted to Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” agreement is being slowly eroded by Beijing.
Lam on Tuesday said she had never discussed resignation with Beijing and believed her government could solve the crisis without Beijing’s help.
China denies it is meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs but warned again on Tuesday that it would not sit idly by if the unrest threatened Chinese security and sovereignty.
Protests that began over a now-suspended extradition bill have evolved into a push for greater democracy, including the right to elect its own leaders. Beijing has said giving Hong Kong universal suffrage is out of the question.
With protesters and Lam’s government at an impasse, there are concerns that Hong Kong’s economy could go into a tailspin, with signs already that money is moving out to other financial centers, including Singapore.
Hong Kong’s private sector activity declined at the fastest pace in more than a decade in August as protests and an escalating trade war hit demand, data showed on Wednesday.