China faces one of its biggest political challenges since the Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago as protesters take over the streets of Hong Kong on Monday.
Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets after the pro-democracy group Occupy Central officially launched a mass civil disobedience movement.
Occupy Central had been threatening for weeks to hold protests aimed at paralyzing the city’s financial and business center if China failed to meet demands for universal suffrage, and grant full and open elections in 2017 as promised.
Clashes between police and protesters began Friday, when hundreds of students swarmed Hong Kong’s government headquarters and staged a two-night sit-in, after boycotting class for a week. The students were quickly joined by thousands of others, including Occupy organizers.
According to the Guardian, police fired volleys of teargas into the crowds at least three times on Sunday afternoon, according to reports posted online, sending protesters running and pleading for water and paper towels. Police have threatened to use a “higher degree of force” if the demonstrators do not disperse.
Protesters have blocked major intersections across the city as police protect the city’s government offices. Hong Kong’s central subway station has been shut down.
Associated Press reports that China has called the protests illegal and endorsed the Hong Kong government’s crackdown. The clashes — images of which have been beamed around the world — are undermining Hong Kong’s image as a safe financial haven, and raised the stakes of the face-off against President Xi Jinping’s government.
Communist Party leaders worry that calls for democracy could spread to the mainland, and have been aggressively censoring news and social media comments about the Hong Kong demonstrations. The Communist rulers blocked Instagram at the onset of the civil disobedience.
Wen Yunchao, a New York-based Chinese blogger and free speech advocate told Foreign Policy that he thought the Instagram shutdown was directly linked to the protest. Before the shutdown, “many Chinese people” were “using Instagram to share pictures of Occupy Central,” he said, referring to a civil disobedience movement that has organized the ongoing demonstration. Using the hashtags #hk, #hongkong and #occupycentral, users have been posting images of support and solidarity, including pictures of a yellow ribbon against a black background.