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Occupy Central, the Hong Kong democracy group pushing for genuine universal suffrage in the Chinese territory, launched its long-planned civil disobedience movement early on Sunday morning.
The group had planned to start its "banquet" – the code name for the protest – on Wednesday. But it brought forward the start after tens of thousands of people gathered outside government headquarters to support pro-democracy student activists involved in a tense two-day stand-off with police.
It said in a statement that "The two nights of occupation of Civic Square in Admiralty have completely embodied the awakening of Hong Kong people's desire to decide their own lives.
"The courage of the students and members of the public in their spontaneous decision to stay has touched many Hong Kong people. Yet the government remained unmoved. As the wheel of time has reached this point, we have decided to arise and act. "
Benny Tai, a co-founder of Occupy Central, shouted "Cheers" in Chinese to the masses of protesters as he announced the start of the so-called banquet.
The move came after crowds streamed into Admiralty, the central district that houses government offices and many five-star hotels, all day ahead of a planned second night of student protests.
Earlier on Saturday, Hong Kong police had arrested dozens of students after two hundred democracy activists stormed government headquarters on Friday evening to protest against a controversial electoral reform plan announced by Beijing last month.
Following an all-night stand-off, police arrested 61 people at 1.30pm on Saturday for "forcible entry into government premises and unlawful assembly". On Friday evening, they arrested several activists, including Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old leader of the pro-democracy Scholarism group.
Police have reportedly searched the home of Mr Wong who has been denied bail. Several other student leaders have also been detained.
Some protesters placed clingfilm over their faces to protect themselves against pepper spray, which police have been using to try to disperse the crowds.
Pro-democracy groups have been up in arms since China last month unveiled a long-awaited plan for universal suffrage – one person, one vote – that allows Hong Kong people to vote for chief executive, the top political job, but essentially makes it impossible for a critic of Beijing to get on the ballot.
Thousands of students held a civil disobedience campaign this week – skipping classes and protesting outside government buildings – to send a message to both Beijing and the Hong Kong government, which supports the plan.
Since Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the territory has been ruled under the "one country, two systems" formula agreed by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. China later agreed to introduce universal suffrage – one person, one vote – for the election of chief executive, the top political job in Hong Kong.
But when China unveiled the plan last month, critics called it "sham democracy". Potential candidates for chief executive would need support from a majority of the 1,200 members of a nomination committee that is stacked with elite Beijing loyalists.
Beijing has urged the people of Hong Kong to support the plan – which requires two-thirds support in the territory's legislature – and stresses that the model would provide more democracy than Britain ever offered during the colonial period.
On Friday evening, hundreds of students pushed their way into a cordoned off area called Civic Square in front of the government buildings. Mr Wong, whose student group Scholarism is fighting for genuine universal suffrage, was arrested for allegedly attacking the police, a spokesman for the campaign group said.
During the night, students and other pro-democracy activists tweeted photographs of hundreds of protesters in Civic Square gathered in a circle and surrounded by police, as hundreds more people look on from outside.
Supporters of the students attempted to block police from sending reinforcements to the square, a public space that has been blocked off for several months. Earlier on Friday, hundreds of high-school students skipped classes and headed to government headquarters to offer support to the protesting university students.
On Monday, more than 10,000 students gathered at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to kick off the weeklong protest that is just one of a number of civil disobedience movements planned in the territory.
On Wednesday, Occupy Central, an umbrella group of pro-democracy activists, is expected to block a key business district to voice its opposition. Benny Tai, one of the co-founders, told the Financial Times last month that the goal of the leaders was to be arrested so that they could generate more attention to the cause.
In a recent interview, Mr Wong said that Scholarism, a group he founded when he was 14 years old, knew that Beijing would not change its mind. But he said it was important to fight. "We fight for our goal without analysing the possibility of success," Mr Wong told the FT. "If . . . you have to consider the possibility to reach the goal, you should not involve [yourself] in the social movement or student movement."
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Additional reporting by Julie Zhu