HONG KONG — In a significant escalation of their efforts to suppress protests calling for democracy, the authorities in Hong Kong unleashed tear gas, mobilized riot police with long-barreled guns and closed a subway station Sunday to disperse crowds that have besieged the city government for three days. But thousands of residents wielding only umbrellas and face masks defied police orders to clear the area.
Hours after the police sought to break up the protest, large crowds of demonstrators remained nearby, sometimes confronting lines of officers and chanting for them to lay down their truncheons and shields. Police officers were also injured in skirmishes with protesters. Streets of a city known as a safe enclave for commerce became a nighttime battleground.
Steve Lee, 23, a recent university graduate who joined the protest, sobbed on the sidewalk after exposure to tear gas. “I don’t understand how the government can, in less than 30 seconds after a warning, use tear gas against peaceful student protesters,” he said.
“Hong Kong has gone crazy,” he added. “It is no longer the Hong Kong I know, or the world knows.”
Some protest leaders called on students to retreat, citing fears that the police would use rubber bullets on the crowd. The Hong Kong government said the police warned residents to “leave peacefully and in an orderly manner, otherwise officers would use a higher level of force.”
The police issued a statement Sunday evening saying that a “lockdown” had been imposed on several downtown areas, including the vicinity of the central government’s offices, and declared any assembly near the offices “unlawful.” Officials reported 78 arrests.
But late into the night, many thousands of residents remained on the streets, denouncing the police crackdown and staging sit-ins in several neighborhoods outside the original protest area. The crowd was especially dense around the Admiralty neighorhood near government headquarters, where the mayhem first broke out earlier in the day and the police ordered a subway stop closed.
Many protesters said they were incensed by how the police had abruptly broken up the sit-in outside the headquarters.
“We’ve never seen anything like this, never imagined it,” said Kevin Chan, 48, a factory manager. “The government must awaken that this is the Hong Kong people here,” he said, gesturing to the crowd, mostly made up of people in their 20s. “These are not their enemies, these are the people.”
Many of the younger protesters wore surgical masks, goggles and clear plastic wrap over their eyes. “This was the first time so many people joined civil disobedience, and the first time there was so much violence against the protesters,” said Chu Ka-wo, a salesman in his 30s. “Now the people will look at the police very, very differently than before.”
The police also fired tear gas in the city’s financial district, known as Central, where a smaller crowd had gathered under the HSBC Building, a landmark of the city’s skyline. The gas caused passers-by near the posh Mandarin Oriental hotel to flee into a subway entrance, which was subsquently closed.
Ricky Lau, 26, a business student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the police appeared worried that the protesters would seize control of the financial district. “They shot into the air, right into the crowd, without warning,” he said. “They were just trying to stop anyone from coming into Central.”
By using heavier-handed tactics than they had, the local authorities risked provoking residents of a city that had seemed divided on the wisdom of mass protests against new election rules that would allow Beijing to screen candidates for the city’s top post. But the Chinese government endorsed the tough approach and publicly denounced the protests.
“The central government adamantly opposes the various illegal acts that have occurred in Hong Kong, damaging rule of law and social order,” said an unnamed spokesman for the government’s Hong Kong affairs office, according to Xinhua, the state-run news agency.
“We have full confidence and firmly support the special administrative region government in handling this according to the law, maintaining social stability in Hong Kong, and protecting the safety of the lives and property of Hong Kong residents.”
Hong Kong’s top official, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, told a news conference that the protesters used illegal means to threaten the government and expressed “absolute trust in the professional judgment of the police.”
The Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the groups that organized the sit-in, urged students to boycott classes for a second week and called on workers to strike in protest against the police crackdown, a member of the federation, Lee Cheuk-yan, told a crowd of protesters.
“They should have let people in. We didn’t burn tires, we are peaceful,” said Tommy Tsang, 55, a driver who was trying to enter the protest area when the police lobbed tear-gas canisters. “This made me even more determined to stay here.”
The protesters have focused their anger at a plan for electoral changes introduced by Beijing last month that for the first time would let the public vote for the city’s chief executive, beginning in 2017. But critics say a committee dominated by people loyal to the Chinese government would be able to screen out candidates who do not have Beijing’s backing, making a mockery of the election.
The Hong Kong government has been grappling with how to defuse the sit-in protest that started on Friday night and swelled at times over the weekend to a crowd of tens of thousands. The protest presented a political quandary for the authorities: Move too gently, and they may give the demonstrators hope; move too forcefully, and they risk alienating public sentiment and global opinion.
“At this stage, it looks like they will have to show their fist,” Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a longtime commentator on Chinese politics who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said while visiting the sit-in. “If the police mishandle this, then government leaders will also appear ineffective.”
Although the police had practiced for months how to quell the planned protests, they failed to prevent hundreds of students from charging into a forecourt at the city government headquarters. That drew many more supporters who occupied an avenue and open areas next to the fenced-in forecourt. The students inside the court were dragged off by the police on Saturday, but the supporters outside have stayed.
“What is going on now, in addition to any immediate public order issues, is a battle for the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong public,” said Michael C. Davis, a professor of law at the University of Hong Kong.
“While protest may have a weak chance of getting Beijing to back down, indifference or heavy-handed tactics on the part of the Hong Kong government could anger the public and increase support for the protesters,” he said.
The most prominent group fighting the election proposal in Hong Kong has been Occupy Central With Love and Peace, which had planned to begin civil disobedience protests in the financial district on Wednesday, a national holiday here.
But the group abruptly changed course early on Sunday, acknowledging that the students’ actions had overtaken its plans and declaring that the “occupation” in front of the city government would be the base of protests.
Benny Tai, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong who co-founded Occupy Central, said he and other protesters were prepared to stay and peacefully resist any effort to clear the area, which many of them call “Civic Square.”
He said the Hong Kong government’s response would probably be guided by advice and signals from Beijing, which exercises sovereignty over the city.
“It’s hard for me to guess what the Chinese government thinks,” he said. “A responsible government that loves its people would be moved and touched. But I’m not sure they love their own people.”