HONG KONG—Police harshly beat back a push by protesters to maintain their grip on downtown areas, signaling a growing crackdown on pro-democracy protests that have paralyzed Hong Kong streets for 2½ weeks.
Video footage aired by a local broadcaster showed the beating of a protester by police during an overnight chaotic melee to clear a street next to city’s government headquarters. While momentum for the students had been fading in recent days, the video combined with the use of pepper spray by police and 45 arrests overnight appeared to give the movement a boost of support, with leaders calling for a big rally downtown tonight to protest against the violence.
“Is this still the Hong Kong with the rule of law?” said Coco Cheng, a 20-year old student. “If there is no rule of law, what else to sustain our future economic and societal development.”
But moves to clear protesters further are unlikely to stop, with a person familiar with police strategy yesterday saying they plan to clear other areas. In the past two days, police have cleared a major road in the main business district, and shrunk the area occupied in another protest site, Causeway Bay, following complaints about snarled traffic and lost earnings.
Pro-democracy protesters gather near the central government offices in Hong Kong on Wednesday. AFP/Getty Images
Hong Kong police officers push protesters to a nearby park to clear the main roads outside government headquarters in Admiralty on Wednesday AP
The road clearance overnight that triggered the scuffles allowed lawmakers to enter the legislature Wednesday to hold their first full session since the protests begun. During today’s legislative council meeting, pan-democrat legislators were grilling Hong Kong security chief Lai Tung-kowk and asking for investigations into possible criminal offenses by the police in the video and asking whether they should be arrested.
Wong Ling-man said he was standing near the tunnel overnight when police used pepper spray and physically removed protesters, kicking some as they pushed them out of the tunnel. The police said several officers were injured including one who had a separated shoulder.
“The government doesn’t want to see us on their way to work,” said Mr. Wong, a 20-year-old student. “I feel that the police didn’t just want to disperse us, but beat us.”
Protesters’ core demands are for freer elections than under a plan by Beijing that effectively ensures no candidate unacceptable to Beijing will be allowed to run for the city’s top post.
While Hong Kong’s government has largely been silent about the protests since officials returned from weekend meetings in mainland China, one of the clearest signals yet from Beijing came on Wednesday.
China’s most senior official in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, told pro-establishment lawmakers in the city that protesters were using “radical forms of street confrontation” to pressure Beijing and the Hong Kong government, according to the official China News Service that cited a person with knowledge of the matter.
“The best means to avoid having all of Hong Kong’s residents pay a greater price would be to end ‘Occupy Central’ as soon as possible,” Mr. Zhang was quoted as saying during a dinner Tuesday evening.
—Charles Hutzler in Beijing and Isabella Steger and Gregor Stuart Hunter in Hong Kong contributed to this article.