Protesters throng streets, defy police in Hong Kong

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HONG KONG: Hong Kong democracy protesters defied volleys of tear gas and police baton charges to stand firm in the centre of the global financial hub on Monday, one of the biggest political challenges for China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago. The Communist government in Beijing made clear it would not tolerate dissent, and warned against any foreign interference as thousands of protesters massed for a fourth night in the free-wheeling, capitalist city of more than 7 million people. “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying defiantly told a news briefing in Beijing.

The unrest, the worst in Hong Kong since China resumed its rule over the former British colony in 1997, sent white clouds of gas wafting among some of the world’s most valuable office towers and shopping malls before riot police suddenly withdrew around lunchtime on Monday.

Tens of thousands of mostly student protesters are demanding full democracy and have called on the city’s leader Leung Chun-ying to step down.

China rules Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” formula that accords the territory only a degree of democracy.

As riot police withdrew on Monday, weary protesters slept beside roads or sheltered from the sun beneath umbrellas, which have become a symbol of what some are calling the “Umbrella Revolution”. In addition to protection from the elements, umbrellas have been used as flimsy shields against pepper spray.

Nicola Cheung, an 18-year-old student from Baptist University, said the protesters in central Admiralty district were assessing the situation and planning what to do next. “Yes, it’s going to get violent again because the Hong Kong government isn’t going to stand for us occupying this area,” she said. “We are fighting for our core values of democracy and freedom, and that is not something violence can scare us away from.” Organisers have said that as many as 80,000 people have thronged the streets after the protests flared on Friday night. No independent estimate of numbers was available.

The movement represents one of the biggest threats for Beijing’s Communist Party leadership since its bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy student protests in and around Tiananmen Square.