Police have fired volleys of pepper spray against protesters denouncing Chinese President Hu Jintao as he visited Hong Kong to mark the 15th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule.
On Saturday, hundreds of protesters, demanding an investigation into the recent death of a well-known mainland dissident, rallied near the hotel where the Chinese leader was staying.
The incident underscored tensions surrounding the anniversary of the financial hub’s handover from British control on Sunday.
Before winding up his trip on Sunday, Hu will also see the inauguration of Hong Kong’s new chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who has been dogged by controversy over alleged conflicts of business interests and unauthorised renovations at his luxury home.
Some protesters tried to break through barricades, which were used by Hong Kong police for the first time since they battled violent protests during a 2005 meeting of the World Trade Organization.
Police unleashed riot-control measures to keep the demonstrators back with eye-stinging pepper spray and arrested two protesters.
As the standoff developed, other protesters chanted anti-Beijing slogans and unfurled a huge banner with the Chinese character “injustice” written on it.
A Hong Kong reporter was briefly detained after shouting questions to Hu about the 1989 Tiananmen Square bloodshed, as the president visited the construction site for a new cruise-ship terminal earlier on Saturday.
The director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, Law Yuk-kai, criticised the security measures as an attempt to shield the Chinese leader from any “embarrassing demonstrations”. He said the city was “under siege”.
Hu’s visit comes as discontent toward Beijing surges to a new post-handover high, and his visit has drawn sneers and ridicule from Hong Kongers, who cherish freedoms in the city such as the right to protest not seen in China.
There has been palpable anger over the death of veteran Tiananmen activist Li Wangyang, who was found dead in his hospital ward in China earlier this month. His family says he died under suspicious circumstances.
Police used pepper spray to disperse protesters from outside the hotel where Chinese president is staying [Reuters]
The towering barricades in Hong Kong are likely to defy Hu’s stated wish to “walk more” and “see more” during his trip to the semi-autonomous city, which returned to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997.
Waving concert glow sticks, about 300 members of a pro-democracy party held a late-night vigil to mourn what they called an erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and chanted slogans demanding universal suffrage.
The city maintains a semi-autonomous status with its own legal and financial system under the “one country, two systems” model that applies to both Hong Kong and the casino haven of Macau, across the Pearl River Delta.
Hong Kong police had vowed to respect the right to protest during Hu’s visit, after they were criticised for heavy-handed tactics during a visit by Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang last year, prompting a special inquiry.
But some users on social media likened the security tactics laid on for Hu to the Great Wall of China or the Berlin Wall.
“The Berlin Wall separated East and West Germany, let’s hope this wall of barricades can separate Hong Kong from China forever,” one anti-Beijing user wrote.