Police have begun arresting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong after China said it would not allow the city to freely choose its top leader.
Hong Kong officials on Tuesday said they arrested 19 protesters for what they called illegal assembly, while local media reported the arrests of three others at their homes. China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) ruled on Sunday that Beijing would still control the nomination process for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017.
Security forces dispersed protests with pepper spray on Monday outside of a Hong Kong center where a top Chinese official spoke about the decision.
The official, NPC Deputy Secretary General Li Fei, called the protest movement known as Occupy Central “an illegal activity.” “If we give in, it will trigger more illegal activities," he said.
Occupy Central said in a press release on Tuesday that “the meaning of our movement will not end at this point” despite the NPC ruling.
“We Hongkongers won’t admit failure in our road to democracy,” the group said. “We have said that if the government does not keep their promise to allow Hongkongers to have genuine universal suffrage in 2017, we will occupy [the city’s Central financial district] with love and peace. We will do what we said.”
The skirmishes are the first of what could be six months of protests before Hong Kong lawmakers vote on the NPC proposal. Under the new electoral rules, candidates would have to obtain approval from at least half of a 1,200-member nominating committee mostly filled with pro-Beijing elites.
Hong Kong lawmakers loyal to China urged the democracy party not to block the electoral changes and said such a move could prevent residents from voting at all. The chief executive is currently selected by the pro-Beijing committee.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, has been ruled as a special administrative region by China since 1997. The city enjoys more freedoms than the Chinese mainland under the “one country, two systems” policy—making the region a potential source of conflict as the Chinese government cracks down on dissidents at home.
Democracy activists in Hong Kong say China has sought to encroach on those freedoms in recent years, including by media censorship. An investors’ journal recently dropped a long-running column by a Hong Kong hedge fund manager who supported the democracy movement, although the publication denied that the move was political.
Other governments have expressed opposition to the NPC proposal.
A top council in Taiwan reacted to the news with “regret.” Taiwan has rejected a “one country, two systems” policy for its autonomous country, which China regards as part of its territory.
The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Charles Rivkin, assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, said in Singapore recently that the United States supported "free and fair elections and transparency" in Hong Kong.
Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy legislator in Hong Kong, said in an interview on Tuesday that China is offering the city a “fake democracy.”
“We cannot accept any fake democracy,” she said. “It’s going to be like North Korea, so we have to take to the streets to protest. We’re fighting this battle, and we’ve been doing it for years and years.”
“We may not win, we haven’t won it yet, but we will fight on.”