13 arrested as Hong Kong’s students take to streets for democracy

Updated 3:49 AM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014

Story highlights

13 arrested as students descend on Hong Kong government headquarters

Among them is 17-year-old pro-democracy activist leader Joshua Wong

Such acts of protest on Chinese soil could only be tolerated in Hong Kong

They want to pressure China into giving Hong Kong full universal suffrage

(CNN) —  

Thirteen student activists, including 17-year-old leader Joshua Wong, were arrested by Hong Kong police Friday, as pro-democracy demonstrations took a heated turn.

Police said that after issuing warnings, they used pepper spray on a group of protesters who stormed a fenced area outside the government headquarters, at the climax of a day which saw high school students join a weeklong boycott of classes by university students.

Authorities said the arrested ranged in age from 16 to 35.

Yvonne Leung, spokesperson for Hong Kong Federation of Students, said that Wong, the student movement’s most prominent leader, was among those detained.

She told CNN the students were unhappy that the city’s leader, chief executive C.Y. Leung, had not granted them an audience.

In a statement, the Hong Kong government expressed regret over the incident, which it said resulted in injuries to security personnel and others.

“While the public meeting participants kept claiming that it was a non-violent and peaceful public meeting, they forced entry into the forecourt leading to injuries,” the statement said. “All along (the government) respected the public’s freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”

The protest capped a campaign involving classroom strikes and sit-ins. It was the biggest flare-up in street protests since Beijing ruled out free elections for Hong Kong in August.

The standoff continued into Saturday as police worked to remove protesters who remained in the restricted area, and asked those who had gathered nearby to encourage the students to disperse. The student vowed to remain until their leaders were set free.

Leaders of the Occupy Central movement, which is vowing to stage a mass protest in the city’s financial district over the suffrage issue, released a statement expressing support for the students. Co-founder Benny Tai said he would stay with the students until the last minute and was prepared to be arrested.

Skipping class for democracy

Since the handover from Britain to China 17 years ago, the people of Hong Kong have been granted a wide range of civil liberties and a measure of autonomy under the governing principle known as “one country, two systems.”

But many believe that way of life is under threat as Beijing affirms its political authority over Hong Kong.

The students want to pressure China into giving Hong Kong full universal suffrage: one man, one vote, plus the ability to choose its own candidates independent of Beijing.

In August, Beijing ruled that candidates for the city’s top post must be selected by a committee perceived to serve the Chinese Communist Party.

Although most are not old enough to drive in the former British colony, the students’ political vision is clear.

“The future of Hong Kong is ours,” said 16-year-old student protester Phoebe Leung.

“I can’t change Hong Kong, but if all of us are here … we may change Hong Kong’s future.”

Week of action

On Monday, students turned out en masse to challenge Beijing’s decision and kick off the strike.

Some 13,000 young protesters took part in a rally at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, A sea of students carried posters and signs, calling for greater political freedom.

On Thursday night, a student-led march attracted more than 4,000 people. The crowd converged on the house of Hong Kong leader C.Y. Leung, carrying signs mocking him and chanting “we want real elections.”

Tiananmen comparison

It’s a sight that’s invited comparisons to another student protest – Tiananmen in 1989. Hong Kong’s student protesters have attracted the attention and support of Chinese dissident Hu Jia who was there at the square.

“Mainland China is a tinderbox that’s been physically suppressed by the authorities, and Hong Kong is a seed of fire,” the veteran human rights activist told CNN.

“The Communist Party is very scared of this tiny bit of land, because if true universal suffrage can blossom in Hong Kong, it is very likely true universal suffrage will end up happening in the Mainland.”

The student boycott is the latest in a string of civil disobedience acts for political reform in Hong Kong, including a recent sit-in in the city’s business district that led to over 500 arrests.

But many in the territory don’t support the movement and prefer the path of persuasion with China. They fear protest is merely inviting instability and is not likely to change Beijing’s policy.

“Whenever China makes a hardline statement, there is reaction in Hong Kong,” says political commentator Frank Ching.

“But China is not going to back down.”

Teenage leader

Wong, is a champion of civil disobedience who has mobilized the student strike in Hong Kong.

He’s been slammed in the media as a puppet. He’s even been called an “extremist” by Beijing.

But this teenage rebel has proven confident in his political battle.

Two years ago, at just 15 years old, Wong rallied over 100,000 people to challenge the government’s plan to introduce a more “patriotic” curriculum in Hong Kong public schools.

The movement forced the government to withdraw the proposal.

This time, it’s all or nothing for this young activist.

Prior to his arrest, he told CNN he was willing to face the legal ramifications of his actions.

“I am prepared to go to court or go to jail,” he said. “It takes a small group of people to change society. If no one is willing to put in an effort, society will not change.”

CNN’s Vivian Kam and Tim Hume contributed to this report