HONG KONG — Riot police moving against activists before dawn Wednesday sparked outrage after officers were seen kicking a handcuffed protester and dragging dozens of others away in the worst violence against the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong since they began more than two weeks ago.
Protesters were knocked to the ground by hundreds of police, some with batons, pepper spray and shields. Officers also tore down barricades around an underpass outside the government’s headquarters.
The clashes worsened an already bitter standoff between authorities and activists who have taken over key roads and streets in the city to press for democratic reforms.
“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.”
Public anger over the aggressive tactics exploded after local TV showed officers taking a protester around a dark corner and kicking him repeatedly on the ground. It’s unclear what provoked the attack. Local Now TV showed him splashing water on officers beforehand.
Protester Ken Tsang said he was kicked while he was “detained and defenceless.” He added that he was assaulted again in the police station afterward.
Tsang, a member of a pro-democracy political party, lifted his shirt to show reporters injuries to his torso and said he is considering legal action against police.
Police spokesman Steve Hui said seven officers who were involved have been temporarily reassigned, and that authorities will carry out an impartial investigation. Police arrested 45 demonstrators in the clashes, and said five officers were injured.
China’s central government issued its harshest condemnations yet of the protests, calling them illegal, bad for business and against Hong Kong’s best interests. Beijing has become increasingly impatient with the demonstrations, the biggest challenge to its 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. “Stability is bliss, and turmoil brings havoc.”
There were no signs, however, that Beijing was planning to become directly involved in suppressing the mostly peaceful demonstrations, which began Sept. 26 and have posed an unprecedented challenge to the government.
The protests have marshalled opposition to plans for a pro-Beijing committee to screen candidates in Hong Kong’s first election to choose the city’s chief executive in 2017. Activists also want Leung Chun-ying, the current leader who is deeply unpopular, to resign.
Leung, who described the protests as being “out of control,” told reporters that officials are willing to talk to protesters, but reiterated that Beijing will not drop the election restrictions. He cancelled a leader’s questions session at the Legislative Council on Thursday, citing security risks.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had no new comment on the protests, pointing to a statement days ago expressing hope that the situation can be resolved through dialogue.
The police operation early Wednesday came hours after a large group of protesters blockaded the underpass, expanding their protest zone in apparent retaliation after police closed in on the occupied areas and cleared activists out of a key thoroughfare.
Police said the protesters were gathering illegally and disrupting public order, and thus had to be dispersed. They added that the activists were using umbrellas to attack officers. Umbrellas have been a symbol of the demonstrations after protesters used them to fend off tear gas and pepper spray last month.
“Some of us were sleeping in the park when more than a hundred of them ran toward us with torches as if they’re trying to blind us temporarily. We were not prepared for how aggressive they were,” said protester Simon Lam, 22.
Julie Lee, 50, said she was charged with obstructing police “even though I had my hands up and eyes closed.”
She said she was arrested at 3 a.m. while sitting outside the chief executive’s office. She said she saw a group of around 20 police officers coming at her, shouting like they were out of control and for protesters to “Move!”
“We are peaceful protesters and I wanted to show I was nonviolent, so I put my hands up and I shut my eyes,” Lee said. “The police roughly pulled me up and brought me to Wong Chuk Hang detention centre. I was later told that four officers had pulled me up together, but I don’t remember because it was so chaotic.”
After attempts to disperse protesters with tear gas and pepper spray two weeks ago, police adopted a strategy of chipping away at the three protest zones by removing barricades from the edges of the occupied areas in early morning hours, 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 an activist before using pepper spray on him, according to a video on the website of the South China Morning Post.
Positions on both sides have been hardening since the government called off negotiations last week, citing the unlikelihood of a constructive outcome.
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.
Zhang Xiaoming, director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, was quoted as telling local legislators 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. It 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 urged an end to the protests as soon as possible.
But Lam, the student protester, said he was bracing for more tensions as the distrust of police grows.
“Now there is a feeling we are not just here to fool around or just to sit peacefully. We are feeling more prepared. We have become more united in building defences,” Lam said.