First Occupy site cleared as angry Hong Kong protesters stand watch
Officers to give their 'fullest support' to bailiffs reclaiming protest site today, but do not expect violence as most protesters say they will retreat
Hong Kong bailiffs tasked to enforce a court order against a key protest camp have successfully torn down barricades at an intersection in Mong Kok, after a tense face-off with pro-democracy demonstrators.
The 20-man "removal team" cleared the juction of Argyle Street and Nathan Road in just 45 minutes. They cut the plastic cordons, tape and strong adhesives that held the barricades in place, and confiscated wooden pallets, fencing and umbrellas.
With the barricades cleared at around 11.15am, the bailiffs breached the protest zone and moved to dismantle remaining tents.
Watch: Hong Kong bailiffs and police clear Mong Kok Occupy site
Police officers, deployed to assist the bailiffs if necessary, formed a line at the intersection to prevent demonstrators from reoccupying the area. Minutes later, some officers, yelling "Open the road", began pushing back protesters in an apparent attempt to clear a passage for debris to be carried away to a waiting truck.
However, the passage wasn't used, prompting Federation of Students activist Yvonne Leung to question why police "stepped in".
"Police should explain when it's right to intervene," she said, adding the court document requires police to disclose when and if their assistance is requested by the bailiffs. "The protesters have the right to know."
One of the bailiffs confirmed they asked for police assistance, but did not say why.
Hours into the operation, the bailiffs' action slowed down somewhat as they were faced down by hordes of protesters, who demanded they be allowed to personally move a stack of wooden boards which was used as a "stage". Some Occupy supporters also loudly complained that the injunction was "not clear enough".
After negotiations between student activists and the removal team, the demonstrators were given 30 minutes to do the job.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, speaking to the Executive Council this morning, said he believed the police would handle the clearance professionally. “I have full confidence in the police’s professionalism and its law enforcement,” he said.
The clearance had kicked off in earnest at about 10.30am, about an hour after the bailiffs arrived and lawyer Maggie Chan Man-ki, the legal counsel for Chiu Luen Public Light Bus Company which obtained an injunction to clear the street, read out the court order.
A bailiff gave protesters 30 minutes to pack their belongings.
"Occupiers should pack up and leave now. Otherwise, [their belongings] would be dealt with as disposed items and rubbish," Chan said.
She warned protesters not to intervene with bailiffs' actions, or else police might step in. Protesters would face contempt of court, she added.
In response, protesters in masks and helmets shouted: "I want true elections" and "We want real suffrage". They also held up three fingers - a protest reference from the sci-fi film The Hunger Games, in which fictional denizens rise up against an authoritarian regime.
Federation of Students representative Leung shot back questions at the minibus group's lawyer over megaphone. "I want to ask if Chan can show me the map first," Leung said, adding Chan should clarify which area they intend to clear and what would constitute "obstructive behaviour".
"They need to label the cleared barricades. Otherwise they are abusing their duties," Leung said of the bailiffs in a later interview. She said she would stay in Mong Kok with about five other HKFS members.
Protesters made no moves to resist as the removal team, clad in white helmets and wearing gloves, began tearing down the barricades at the intersection, near the HSBC building.
Student Kim Ng, 20, said: "We'll keep doing what we can to show our determination [for free elections] as they clear the site" by chanting slogans and holding up banners.
Some protesters have donned protective equipment including helmets and masks, in a sign that some are wary of the possibility of a forceful clear-out.
"I'm confident our people won't clash with [the police]. But I can't say the same for the other side," said protester Zero Lam Tat-wing, adding that he believed many protesters would return to retake the streets, in a different area, if the Argyle Street camp is dismantled. Several tents still remain in the zone.
Meanwhile, speaking in Beijing on Tuesday, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the police would give full support to the bailiffs during the operation.
“If the road can be cleared, it would be a relief to those members of the public and businesses that have been affected for almost two months,” she said.
Lam, who is visiting the Chinese capital with three senior Hong Kong officials, said the government was always open to resuming dialogue with the Federation of Students, one of three major groups leading the movement.
But Lam, who represented the government in a crisis dialogue with student activists last month, stressed that the students had to abandon any preconditions - including for Beijing to rescind a decision on Hong Kong election reform - if they want a new round of talks.
“We always welcome [discussions on] political reform with the federation, in a pragmatic manner,” she said.
About 3,000 police officers were said to be on standby this morning.
The operation, which may last two days or more, will also include clearance of blockades set up along Nathan Road, a police source said yesterday.
At 7am today, at least 80 police officers were standing by at the intersection of Nathan Road and Argyle Street and another 20 on the junction of Argyle and Portland Street. Throngs of journalists had also arrived on the scene.
Protester Ken Chu, wearing a full gas mask, said he put on his "defence equipment" as a precaution. "In the past, police have treated protesters with sudden and inappropriate force. I hope there will be no such case today as police are only here to assist bailiffs. I of course will stay till the end," said Chu.
However, the police force foresaw little likelihood of violence and officers would not get directly involved unless protesters resisted bailiffs' enforcement of injunctions or more hands were needed to carry away obstacles, the source said.
"[The protesters] also want to leave. It will only be a show if there's any resistance," the source said as the Occupy movement, demanding democracy and the right of voters to nominate candidates for the 2017 chief executive election, entered its 58th day.
"They will be given sufficient warning and time to leave before any arrest is made."
Apart from the bus firm, two taxi groups were granted a similar injunction in respect of Nathan Road.
Earlier this morning, protesters moved tents and supplies from Argyle Street to Nathan Road, two hours ahead of a clearance operation.
Police said last night they would give "the fullest support" to the bailiffs in their execution of the court orders and would take "resolute action" if anyone resisted or tried to return to the cleared zones or occupy other areas.
The source said police still aimed to start clearing Mong Kok's main occupation zone on Nathan Road tomorrow.
Officers will be deployed in Mong Kok two hours before bailiffs start removing obstacles at 9am today.
The crowd in Mong Kok remained peaceful yesterday, as two bailiffs and a legal representative from Kwong and Associates, for the taxi groups, arrived to put up injunction orders.
People Power lawmaker Albert Chan Wai-yip said some of the group's members would stay and surrender to arrest.
But most protesters said they intended to retreat.
Psychology student William Yu, 20, said there was no point resisting and getting arrested.
"I'll stay until the last moment. When they ask me to go, then I'll leave," he said.
Yu said he would be happy to accept alternative proposals to help Hong Kong achieve a real election but he had become fed up with the government's lack of response.
Protester Amy Pat, 19, said she had already asked her friends and people at resource stations to pack.
But accounting student Water Lee, 20, said he would try to stop the removal if enough people supported the idea.
"If I were afraid [of being arrested], I wouldn't have been out here over the past month," he said, insisting on both public nomination and the scrapping of the Legislative Council functional constituencies.
Meanwhile, police removed the tents and other belongings of about 20 pro-democracy protesters from a section of pavement outside the British consulate on Supreme Court Road in Admiralty at around 7am yesterday.
The group had occupied the vehicle entrance since Friday. Most of them moved to a nearby demonstration area designated by police after a warning from officers. One protester was carried away by officers but returned to the demonstration zone.
Additional reporting by Danny Mok and Lai Ying-kit