×

Hong Kong police use pepper spray on protesters, anger simmers over beating

A policeman screams at protesters after scuffles broke out between police and protesters in Hong Kong.
Paula Bronstein | Getty Images
A policeman screams at protesters after scuffles broke out between police and protesters in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong police used pepper spray on Thursday to stop pro-democracy protesters from blocking a major road near the office of the city's embattled leader amid public anger over the police beating of a protester a day earlier.

At police headquarters in the nearby entertainment district of Wan Chai, hundreds of people gathered outside to express outrage at the beating, with dozens queuing to lodge formal complaints.

Authorities on Wednesday said police involved in the beating of Ken Tsang Kin-chiu, a member of the pro-democracy Civic Party, would be suspended.

Footage of the beating has gone viral and injected fresh momentum into a protest movement that had been flagging after nearly three weeks of demonstrations over Chinese restrictions on how Hong Kong will choose its next leader.

Read MoreHong Kong police attack on activist sparks anger

In the latest confrontation, Hong Kong's public broadcaster RTHK said protesters rushed onto Lung Wo road next to the office of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, dragging plastic barriers and other objects with them. A Reuters photographer saw protesters later scuffling with a small group of police on the side of the road. Police repelled them using pepper spray.

By mid-morning on Thursday, a few hundred protesters remained camped out around the main protest site, with about 50 police standing guard. Many demonstrators were still sleeping and there was no sign of tension.

"Even though it was a bit tense overnight, I could still sleep. I still hope the government will restart dialogue with the students. I still hope our demand for universal suffrage can eventually come true," said Brian Yip, a 19-year-old student.

Protesters caught police by surprise 24 hours earlier, erecting makeshift barricades to block the thoroughfare, prompting police to move in and arrest 45 people and clear the road. Traffic chaos at other protest sites in the city has severely disrupted some parts of the Asian financial hub.

Read MoreWill Hong Kong violence spark action from China?

At its peak, 100,000 protesters had been on the streets. Those numbers have dwindled significantly. But a hardcore group of demonstrators, mostly students, has kept up the pressure on Hong Kong authorities, who have called the protests illegal.

China rules Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" formula that gives the city wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, with universal suffrage an eventual goal.

But Beijing, which has branded the protests illegal, says only candidates screened by a nominating committee will be able to contest a full city-wide vote to choose the next chief executive in 2017.

Britain's national broadcaster, the BBC, said in a statement that Chinese censors had blocked its website, adding it seemed to be a "deliberate censorship". The BBC's English-language website was still inaccessible in China on Thursday.

"Police have betrayed us"

Tsang was taken to hospital after being beaten and activists released photographs showing bruising on his face and body.

"I'm afraid that one day I will come out for a protest and the police will do the same thing to me," said Jen Lau, 28, a social worker who was sitting on the sidewalk outside the police headquarters in Wan Chai just after midnight.

"Even though he is a protester, he should not be treated this way. I think the police should receive disciplinary action or something even more serious."

Several social workers printed a "wanted" poster with color pictures of the police officers they said were responsible for the beating, and were carrying it up and down the line of those waiting to file complaints.

Read MoreHong Kong police face off with protesters near government HQ

"I think the police have betrayed us Hong Kong citizens," said Tony Yip, 23, a research assistant at a science museum. "They are using violence against ordinary citizens."

Leung has said there was "zero chance" China's leaders would give in to protesters' demands, a view shared by most political analysts and many Hong Kong citizens. Protesters have also demanded Leung resign.

China's ruling Communist Party believes it has offered enough concessions to Hong Kong in the past, and would give no ground because it wants to avoid setting a precedent for reform on the mainland.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong's most prominent tycoon, Li Ka-shing, urged the protesters to go home.

Read MoreHow 'triad' gangs fit in with Hong Kong protests

Li, Asia's richest man and chairman of property developer Cheung Kong (Holdings), had made no public comment on the protests but broke his silence to say if Hong Kong's rule of law broke down it would be the city's "greatest sorrow".

"I urge everyone not to be agitated," he said. "I urge everyone not to let today's passion become the regret for tomorrow. I earnestly request everyone to return to their families."