HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong police battling activists for control of an underpass in the dead of night Wednesday sparked public anger after officers were seen kicking a handcuffed protester in the worst violence since street demonstrations for greater democracy began more than two weeks ago.
Officers armed with riot shields and pepper spray knocked activists to the ground, dragging dozens away, and tore down barricades protesters used as roadblocks around the underpass outside the government’s headquarters.
Outrage over their aggressive tactics exploded after local TV showed half a dozen officers taking the protester around a dark corner and kicking him on the ground. It’s unclear what provoked the attack. Local Now TV showed footage of him splashing water on officers beforehand.
“Hong Kong police have gone insane today, carrying out their own punishment in private,” said pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan. “Hong Kong’s values and its rule of law really have been completely destroyed by police chiefs.”
Beijing, meanwhile, issued its harshest condemnations yet of the protests, calling them illegal, bad for business and against Hong Kong’s best interests. The central government has become increasingly impatient with the demonstrations, the biggest challenge to Beijing’s authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.
A front-page editorial Wednesday in the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece, condemned the protests and said “they are doomed to fail.”
“Facts and history tell us that radical and illegal acts that got their way only result in more severe illegal activities, exacerbating disorder and turmoil,” the commentary said.
However, there were no signs that the central government was planning to become directly involved in suppressing the demonstrations, which have marshalled opposition to plans for a pro-Beijing committee to screen candidates to run in Hong Kong’s first elections to choose the city’s chief executive in 2017. The protesters also want the current leader, Leung Chun-ying, to resign.
The police operation came hours after a large group of protesters blockaded the underpass late Tuesday, expanding their protest zone after being cleared out of some other streets. The protesters outnumbered the police officers, who later returned with reinforcements to clear the area.
The underpass borders the city government headquarters and is a short walk away from the main protest zone straddling a highway on the opposite side of the complex. Demonstrators appeared to storm the short tunnel in reaction to police attempts over the past two days to remove barricades on the edges of the sprawling protest zone.
Police said they had to disperse the protesters because they were disrupting public order and gathering illegally.
They arrested 45 demonstrators during the clashes, none of whom were injured, a police spokesman said.
But local television channel TVB showed footage of around six plainclothes police officers taking a man around the side of a building, pushing him to the ground and kicking him. Local legislators and activists identified the protester as Ken Tsang, a member of a local pro-democracy political party.
Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok told reporters that the officers who were involved have been temporarily reassigned and the police department is carrying out an investigation.
“There is concern over a video clip taken by the media showing police officers who used inappropriate force against an arrested person,” Lai said.
Tsang, through his lawyer Tanya Chan, alleged that officers also slapped him after he was taken to a police station. Activists circulated photos of bruises on his face and back.
The demonstrations have posed an unprecedented challenge to the government. Organizers say as many as 200,000 people thronged the streets for peaceful sit-ins after police used tear gas on Sept. 28 to disperse the unarmed protesters. The numbers have since dwindled.
After initial attempts to disperse protesters with tear gas and pepper spray two weeks ago, police have adopted a different strategy of chipping away at the three protest zones by removing barricades from the edges of the occupied areas in the early morning, when the crowd numbers are usually lowest.
But Wednesday’s raid was the most violent so far, with police charging the protesters and dragging them away. One officer ripped a facemask off a male activist before spraying him with pepper spray, according to a video on the South China Morning Post newspaper’s website.
Positions on both sides have been hardening since the government called off negotiations last week, citing the unlikelihood of a constructive outcome given their sharp differences. Leung has said there is “almost zero chance” that China’s government will change its rules for the election.
Beijing is eager to end the protests to avoid emboldening activists and others on the mainland seen as a threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.
In language freighted with political symbolism, Zhang Xiaoming, director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, was quoted as telling Hong Kong legislators at a banquet Tuesday that the protest movement “is a serious social and political incident.”
Zhang said the movement challenged Beijing’s authority and had caused the city to suffer huge economic losses. They had “hurt the basis of Hong Kong’s rule of law, democratic development, social harmony, international image and its relations with the mainland,” he said.
Zhang called for an end to the protests as soon as possible to avoid further losses to Hong Kong’s citizenry as a whole.