HONG KONG >> Hong Kong authorities demolished a protest camp Thursday at the heart of the city’s 2 1/2 -month pro-democracy movement but scores of activists taken away by police vowed their fight for genuine elections wasn’t over.
Hundreds of police officers armed with chain saws and bolt cutters methodically dismantled barricades, tore down canopies and removed banners in a daylong operation to shut the protest site sprawled across a normally busy highway next to the specially administered Chinese city’s business district.
Police said 209 people were arrested for unlawful assembly and obstructing police officers.
The operation was peaceful and unmarked by the violent clashes seen in previous confrontations between protesters and police. Traffic started flowing on the road by mid-evening.
The student-led protesters had occupied streets in the Admiralty neighborhood and two other areas since Sept. 28 to protest Beijing’s restrictions on the first election of the city’s top leader.
The unprecedented campaign, which began as a separate protest led by student and activist groups, got a jumpstart when police fired dozens of tear gas rounds on a group of demonstrators flooding into the area. The resulting movement paralyzed traffic, polarized public opinion and, activists said, marked the start of an era of civil disobedience in Hong Kong, an orderly Asian financial hub where residents are increasingly worried about mainland China’s increasing sway.
It also adds to the challenges for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has taken a tough stance against dissent in other regions at the country’s edges.
Hundreds of demonstrators heeded police warnings to leave the protest zone Thursday to avoid being arrested, but dozens of students, pro-democracy lawmakers and others, including middle-aged and elderly supporters, remained sitting on the street. They chanted “I want true democracy” and “We will be back” but offered no resistance as they were taken away one by one, many lifted off the ground.
Among those arrested were pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, pop singer Denise Ho, veteran pro-democracy activist Martin Lee and pro-democracy legislators including Albert Ho. Leaders from the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism, two student groups that have played key roles in organizing the protests, were also taken to police stations.
Police also arrested four activists from radical political parties and a student group at their homes Wednesday and Thursday on suspicion of inciting others to join unauthorized assemblies.
The sprawling encampment in Hong Kong’s Admiralty section, next to city government headquarters, was the focal point of what became known as the “Umbrella Movement” because of the protesters’ use of umbrellas to fend off police pepper spray.
Police had cleared out a second protest site in the blue-collar Mong Kok neighborhood late last month in an aggressive two-day operation that sparked several nights of clashes and saw about 160 people arrested. A smaller protest site in the Causeway Bay district remains untouched but police have vowed to move on it soon.
The protesters reject Beijing’s restrictions on the election of the city’s top leader scheduled for 2017, but failed to win any concessions from Hong Kong’s government.
Protesters promised to keep up their civil disobedience campaign against the government using new tactics. Many said the movement had sparked an awakening among the wider population.
“People will come back again, they will come back with stronger force,” said Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, who was arrested.
Pro-democracy lawmakers said they would pressure the government in the legislature by blocking funding requests and the government’s electoral reforms.
“A dialogue can only happen when we vote down the coming political reform package,” said pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, who was the last to be arrested.
Hong Kong government officials have seemed more open to resuming talks as the movement drew to a close, but the chances of a breakthrough are slim given the wide differences between the two sides. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, the No. 2 official, said Wednesday that she is open to discussions with the students.
Protester Andy Chu, who was among those waiting to be arrested, said the movement “will move on to the next stage. It’s not about occupying the streets anymore. It can be about paying attention to other political issues such as social welfare and housing issues.”
The clearing operation began Thursday morning when workers enforcing a court order removed some barricades on the edge of the protest site. Police then sealed off the area and moved in to clear out the rest of it.
They tore down hundreds of tents and canopies that served as supply stations, leaving them in mangled heaps among discarded newspapers, flip-flops, cardboard boxes and umbrellas.
Police also razed a study area made up of tables and chairs and ripped down messages of support pasted to a nearby wall. At least 20 dump trucks with grappler arms picked up the debris.
Associated Press journalist Wendy Tang contributed to this report.