HK pro-democracy leaders shave heads in protest against Beijing's rising political control

Founders of the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement (from left) academics Chan Kin-man and Benny Tai and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming shave their heads during a protest to call for people to join them for an upcoming "Occupy Central" movement rally i
Founders of the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement (from left) academics Chan Kin-man and Benny Tai and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming shave their heads during a protest to call for people to join them for an upcoming "Occupy Central" movement rally in Hong Kong on Sept 9, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (AFP) - To the sound of whirring clippers, Hong Kong democracy activists shaved their heads on Tuesday in a symbolic act of protest against Beijing's increased political control over the city.

Dozens of pro-democracy campaigners gathered in a church hall packed with supporters and press for the ritual, declaring that the removal of their hair represented their willingness to make sacrifices for Hong Kong's political future.

Among those who had their heads shorn were the three founders of Occupy Central - a grassroots network which has vowed to take over the streets of the city's financial district following the recent decision by China to restrict who can stand for the city's top post. "It is our determination to show we can give something up in order to fight for something more important," Mr Benny Tai, an Occupy co-founder and local academic, said. "To Chinese people, our hair is a gift given to us by our parents. It is precious. One day we will also give up our freedom to fight for democracy," he added.

Activists in the former British colony had their hopes for genuine democracy dashed after China announced last week that the city's next leader would be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee and that only two or three people would be allowed to stand.

A coalition of pro-democracy groups, led by Occupy Central, have labelled the restrictions a "fake democracy" and vowed to usher in a new "era of civil disobedience" against the decision.

But the movement has recently lost some steam, with senior leaders stepping back from their more shrill rhetoric and questioning their ability to change Beijing's mind.

In a downbeat interview last week, Mr Tai even admitted that support for his movement might be waning - a claim that both he and other senior members of the Occupy movement later backtracked on.

Activists are trying to recapture some of the anger and enthusiasm that was apparent ten days ago when thousands gathered in a public park vowing to fight Beijing's increasing political control over the city with peaceful direct action.

During Tuesday's ceremony, Mr Tai and two fellow Occupy founders shaved their heads first as a sombre cello rendition of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" played in the background.

Some 40 supporters from a range of pro-democracy groups then followed suit to loud applause.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China on July 1, 1997 under a "one country, two systems" agreement that allows civil liberties not seen on the mainland, including free speech and the right to protest.

But public discontent in the semi-autonomous city is rising over political interference, increased inequality and the perceived cosy relationship between the city's powerful business elite and Beijing.