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Hong Kong Police Answer Large Pro-Democracy Protest With Tear Gas


There are stunning images coming out of Hong Kong today. Thousands of pro-democracy protesters clashed with police who tried to subdue them with tear gas and pepper spray. When the former British colony unified with China in 1997, the Chinese government promised Hong Kong would have a high degree of autonomy. But disagreements about just how far that autonomy goes reached a boiling point over the weekend. Isabella Steger is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, based in Hong Kong. I spoke with her on the phone earlier today. And she says the dissatisfaction has been brewing for years.

ISABELLA STEGER: So people in Hong Kong have been agitated for many years now, since they had the handover in 1997 from - back from the U.K. to China. They want the ability to choose - elect their own leader, the chief executive of Hong Kong. And after many, many years of political consultation, finally, Beijing handed down a ruling in August that basically says that the people of Hong Kong can choose the leader of Hong Kong. But the candidates that run for that race must be vetted by Beijing to be patriotic and from China and loyal to the country. And that set off huge unrest and protests here, you know, on a scale that I definitely haven't seen before.

RATH: Can you tell us who the protesters are? I mean, what's the mix of, you know, students, activists, ordinary people?

STEGER: Mostly it's been the students that have been the driving force, I would say, although dissatisfaction has been coming from across segments of Hong Kong society for many years. On Friday night, that turned violent when police used pepper spray for the first time. And that was already pretty shocking to a lot of the students. This is the last place that you expect to see these scenes - in a place like Hong Kong.

RATH: And has the reaction been to - have people been sort of scared back into their homes, or is it drawing more people out into the streets?

STEGER: The crowd on the streets - on the main road near where I am now - has been getting bigger as the evening has gone on. So, you know, to some extent, I do think that the police response has galvanized more people to come out on the streets. And actually, the protest has actually been spreading away from this main area now - outside the government headquarter building in an area called Admiralty. East and west, down the main roads, are - running down Hong Kong Island - and they've also actually begun to spring up across the harbor in Kowloon Tsai, which traditionally isn't sort of a focus point for a protest because it's not the main government and business area.

RATH: And has there been any official response or a reaction from the government in Beijing?

STEGER: The Chinese government, through its news agency, did put out a statement today obviously condemning what they say is, you know, unlawful actions. Students have been demanding for days to speak to our chief executive, Leung Chun-ying. And finally, today on Sunday afternoon, he held a press conference. And as expected, he condemned what the people were doing, which they're saying is an illegal gathering.

RATH: So we're heading into the work week now. Obviously, Hong Kong is a massive business hub. Where do things go from here? Is the city going to be functional?

STEGER: People are being told to work from home if they have to. It's unclear whether they'll be able to clear everyone. I mean, what's obvious is that there's a lot more protestors than there are police outside. So it's unclear how they will clear everyone out.

Also, on Wednesday and Thursday, it's actually the national - Chinese National Day holiday. So it's the 65th anniversary of them establishing the People's Republic. And it's a public holiday here, as well. So it's an extra sensitive time for the government right now and also a time when a lot of tourists, especially from mainland China, are expected to come to Hong Kong for their holiday.

RATH: Isabella Steger of the Wall Street Journal speaking to us on the phone from Hong Kong. Isabella, thank you so much.

STEGER: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.