Hong Kong’s Chief Executive CY Leung has said the need for economic growth outweighs calls for greater democracy, in his first annual policy address since last year’s pro-democracy protests.
Leung Chun-ying, commonly known as CY Leung, said Hong Kong would “degenerate into anarchy” if it gave in to demands for universal suffrage.
The speech was delayed as several pro-democracy lawmakers staged a noisy protest in the chamber calling for him to resign.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy street protests came to an end in December.
The protesters had been on the streets since late September. They were demanding that the 2017 elections – Hong Kong’s first public vote for the leadership – should be held without interference from Beijing.
China’s government has said that while there will be a free vote, there should only be two to three candidates, chosen by a pro-Beijing committee.
The protesters wanted CY Leung – who was himself elected by a committee of 1,200 people – to resign, but he refused.
While tens of thousands of people took part in the initial demonstrations which paralyzed parts of central Hong Kong, numbers had fallen to a few hundred – mostly students – by the time police and bailiffs dismantled the last camps in mid-December.
In his opening remarks of his speech, CY Leung said Hong Kong had to make a choice between “implementing universal suffrage and a standstill” in the economy.
While he recognized the aspirations of the student protesters, he said they did not fully understand Hong Kong’s laws, and that the territory had never been promised total political autonomy.
The reforms to take place in 2017 were “a big step forward for Hong Kong’s democratic development”, he said.
“As we pursue democracy, we should act in accordance with the law, or Hong Kong will degenerate into anarchy,” he warned.
Cy Leung also promised to generate more affordable housing in Hong Kong – a major issue in the wealthy but small territory – by announcing a new subsidized housing scheme.
His speech was delayed by several minutes after members of the pan-democratic bloc walked through parliament waving yellow umbrellas – a symbol of the protest movement – and banners calling for universal suffrage and for CY Leung to resign.
Pro-democracy lawmakers Raymond Chan and Albert Chan were removed from the chamber by security guards, while others walked out, leaving empty seats.
Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have been arrested at the main protest camp at Admiralty, which is now cleared after more than two months of demonstrations.
Many left as bailiffs and police removed the camp’s barricades but some vowed to stay despite police warnings.
Police began their operation early on December 11 in what is widely seen as the final act in the long-running protests.
The number of protesters has dwindled in recent weeks from the tens of thousands who turned out in September.
They want Beijing to allow free elections for the territory’s next leader in 2017. China says everyone can vote but a pro-Beijing committee will screen candidates.
Police officers started to clear the camp and dismantle tents after issuing orders for protesters to vacate the “occupied area” within 30 minutes or face arrest.
Among those reportedly arrested were opposition Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, student leader Nathan Law, media tycoon Jimmy Lai and singer Denise Ho.
As police approached the last remaining protesters, Alex Chow, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, rallied the crowds, saying the fight was not over, AP reports.
Meanwhile, a dozen people who opposed the protests turned up to cheer on the police, the South China Morning Post reports.
Earlier in the morning, bailiffs read out a final warning to protesters shortly before workers, backed by police, moved in and began dismantling barricades in one section of the site, using box cutters to remove ties.
Footage from the scene showed police tearing down supply and first aid tents, as well as a study area used by students.
Trucks with cranes were also used to pick up debris left behind from the broken barriers, plastic sheets and umbrellas.
The clearance is the result of a court order obtained by a bus company which says the protests have disrupted its business.
While the order covers three portions of the Admiralty site, including the main Connaught Road area, Hong Kong police spokesman Cheung Tak-keung said officers would also clear blocked roads.
He said they would clear away barricades from a second protest site at Causeway Bay site “at an appropriate time”. About 20 people remain there, the South China Morning Post reports.
Some pro-democracy politicians have joined the students at the site and academics and a police watchdog are monitoring the clearance operation.
Some protesters, however, packed up their tents as Thursday dawned.
Clashes erupted when a third protest site, at Mong Kok, was cleared last month.
On December 10, Hong Kong’s top civil servant Carrie Lam urged students to leave the Admiralty site peacefully.
Later that night, more than 10,000 people gathered at the protest site, chanting pro-democracy slogans in what many saw as a farewell to the current demonstrations.
At their height, the protests were seen as the biggest challenge to Beijing’s rule in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover.
Rallies in late September and early October saw huge crowds on the streets. But numbers fell as weeks passed and many Hong Kong residents also spoke out against the protests because of disruption to the city.
Beijing has not moved from its position on Hong Kong’s election process, describing the demonstrations as illegal.
Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Chu Yiu-ming, the founders of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement, have turned themselves in to police over their role in pro-democracy demonstrations.
The trio said they wanted to take responsibility for protests deemed illegal by authorities.
However, after a brief meeting they left without being arrested or charged.
Protesters have been demonstrating for two months over Beijing’s restrictions on Hong Kong’s election process.
Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Chu Yiu-ming walked into the Central Police Station to turn themselves in together with Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who has supported the protests.
The three men left less than an hour later, saying they were being released without charge.
They were asked to provide their personal details and tick against a list of offences. The men ticked the box for “illegal assembly”.
Officers had told them that because they had not been arrested, the police could only collect information from them and would “invite them back to the police station at an appropriate time”.
Some supporters followed suit. Police said a total of 24 people surrendered and officers told them to immediately stop illegal occupation of public places.
As they arrived, the Occupy founders were met by a large gathering of supporters outside the police station, who shouted: “I want true democracy!” as they walked in.
Anti-Occupy groups also showed up, greeting the men with jeers and shouts of: “Arrest them!”
Earlier, Benny Tai told a radio show that he had no regrets, saying: “In hindsight, I would still do the same thing.”
Occupy Central led the street protests when they began in September, but has since receded as student groups have become more prominent.
The protesters want China to scrap its plan to screen candidates for the territory’s 2017 leadership election, and want the Hong Kong government to renegotiate the political arrangement with Beijing.
Announcing their plan to present themselves to police on December 2, the Occupy Central founders repeated their call for student activists to scale back their protests, amid sporadic clashes with police.
One protest camp in Mong Kok has been taken down by the authorities, but a few hundred protesters refuse to vacate the remaining two camps at Admiralty and Causeway Bay.
Alex Chow, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, told reporters that student leaders would not follow Occupy and turn themselves into police.
Meanwhile another student leader, Joshua Wong, is on a hunger strike along with two female members of his Scholarism group to demand talks on political reform with the Hong Kong authorities.
Occupy Central founders have repeated their call for Hong Kong protesters to retreat.
Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Chu Yiu-ming also said they would turn themselves in to police on December 3.
Occupy Central movement initially led the pro-democracy protests, but has receded as students continued with demonstrations.
Student leader Joshua Wong has begun a hunger strike to demand talks with the Hong Kong authorities over the movement’s ideas for political reforms.
Occupy and the students want China to scrap its plans to screen candidates for the 2017 election for the territory’s leadership. They want the Hong Kong government to renegotiate the arrangement with Beijing.
In a statement read out by Benny Tai at Tuesday’s press conference, where Chu Yiu-ming was seen weeping, the founders said they were handing themselves in to police to demonstrate “commitment and responsibility”.
The three added: “For the sake of the occupiers’ safety, for the sake of our original intention of love and peace, as we prepare to surrender, we three urge the students to retreat – to put down deep roots in the community and transform the movement to extend the spirit of the Umbrella Movement.”
Occupy Central plans to continue its work through public debates, community education and funding democracy groups.
Joshua Wong began his hunger strike on Monday night, along with two other members of his Scholarism group, in the hopes of reopening dialogue with the government and “restarting the political reform process”.
On December 2 he told reporters: “We admit that it’s difficult in the future to have an escalated action, so besides suffering from batons and tear gas, we would like to use our body to get public attention.”
“We are not sure if the hunger strike can put pressure on the government, but we hope that when the public realizes about the student hunger strike, they will ask themselves what they can do next.”
On Sunday night and early Monday, hundreds of protesters clashed with police as they tried to surround government offices in Admiralty.
The move was an escalation of protests in retaliation to authorities clearing the Mong Kok camp while acting on court orders. The protest sites at Admiralty and Causeway Bay still remain.