Tensions flare between protesters, police in HK on one-year anniversary of Occupy mass rallies

Policemen blocking the way to a road as pro-democracy demonstrators and activists gather outside the government headquarters building to mark one year since the start of mass pro-democracy rallies calling for fully free leadership elections in the se
Policemen blocking the way to a road as pro-democracy demonstrators and activists gather outside the government headquarters building to mark one year since the start of mass pro-democracy rallies calling for fully free leadership elections in the semi-autonomous city, in Hong Kong on Sept 28, 2015. The 2014 Occupy protests began after China's central government claimed it was offering a compromise of sorts by allowing a popular vote for the Hong Kong leader in 2017 but insisted candidates were vetted.PHOTO: AFP
Protesters holding yellow umbrellas outside the Legislative Council during a march in Hong Kong, China, on Sept 28, 2015. Police were on alert for public rallies marking the first anniversary of pro-democracy protests that brought parts of the former
Protesters holding yellow umbrellas outside the Legislative Council during a march in Hong Kong, China, on Sept 28, 2015. Police were on alert for public rallies marking the first anniversary of pro-democracy protests that brought parts of the former British colony to a standstill for 79 days.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Pro-democracy demonstrators and activists gathering outside the government headquarters building to mark one year since the start of mass pro-democracy rallies calling for fully free leadership elections in the semi-autonomous city, in Hong Kong on S
Pro-democracy demonstrators and activists gathering outside the government headquarters building to mark one year since the start of mass pro-democracy rallies calling for fully free leadership elections in the semi-autonomous city, in Hong Kong on Sept 28, 2015. The 2014 Occupy protests began after China's central government claimed it was offering a compromise of sorts by allowing a popular vote for the Hong Kong leader in 2017 but insisted candidates were vetted. PHOTO: AFP
A banner which reads "I want real universal suffrage" is displayed as protesters gather outside government headquarters in Hong Kong, China on Sept 28, 2015. Monday marks the first anniversary of the Occupy Central or "umbrella" movement, demanding u
A banner which reads "I want real universal suffrage" is displayed as protesters gather outside government headquarters in Hong Kong, China on Sept 28, 2015. Monday marks the first anniversary of the Occupy Central or "umbrella" movement, demanding universal suffrage in the territory. PHOTO: REUTERS
A pro-democracy activist displaying yellow umbrellas outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong on Sept 28, 2015.
A pro-democracy activist displaying yellow umbrellas outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong on Sept 28, 2015.PHOTO: AFP
Occupy Central movement co-founder Benny Tai (left) and student protest leader Joshua Wong (right) outside the government headquarters building on Sept 28, 2015.
Occupy Central movement co-founder Benny Tai (left) and student protest leader Joshua Wong (right) outside the government headquarters building on Sept 28, 2015.PHOTO: AFP
A Hong Kong couple holding a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the Occupy Central movement, poses during a pre-wedding photoshoot in front of the government headquarters, as policemen walking past, in Hong Kong, China on Sept 28, 2015. Monday marks the
A Hong Kong couple holding a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the Occupy Central movement, poses during a pre-wedding photoshoot in front of the government headquarters, as policemen walking past, in Hong Kong, China on Sept 28, 2015. Monday marks the first anniversary of the movement. PHOTO: REUTERS
A recently-married couple getting ready to take a picture outside the government headquarters building on Sept 28, 2015.
A recently-married couple getting ready to take a picture outside the government headquarters building on Sept 28, 2015.PHOTO: AFP
Yellow lanterns decorated with pro-democracy slogans are displayed outside the government headquarters building on Sept 28, 2015.
Yellow lanterns decorated with pro-democracy slogans are displayed outside the government headquarters building on Sept 28, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - Tensions flared between Hong Kong protesters and police on Monday (Sept 28) evening as crowds gathered a year to the day after the start of huge pro-democracy rallies which brought parts of the city to a standstill.

All day, crowds had numbered just a few hundred, a reflection of the movement's loss of momentum after failing to push Beijing into allowing fully free leadership elections in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

But as 5.58pm neared - the exact time a year ago when police fired tear gas at protesters - hundreds more poured in to the roads and walkways near government headquarters in the Admiralty financial district.

Instead of a planned moment of silence, protesters opened yellow umbrellas - symbol of the pro-democracy movement - while the police warned them to back down, saying they would "use force" if they tried to occupy the nearby main road.

Hundreds of angry demonstrators shouting "Open the roads!" faced off with tense police for more than an hour at the edge of the main road before the crowds dispersed voluntarily.

At the height of the 2014 protests, which lasted for more than two months, tens of thousands regularly gathered to demand political reform. Yet despite the unprecedented rallies which garnered extensive coverage across the world, protesters were unable to force change.

Frustrated activists now say they need to regroup and come up with new strategies, conceding that changing the minds of Beijing and the Hong Kong government is currently a hopeless task.

Around 500 protesters gathered at the former main rally site in the financial district of Admiralty on Monday afternoon, jeering police who warned them not to block roads.

Rows of yellow umbrellas - symbol of the pro-democracy movement - several tents and a huge banner reading "I Want Universal Suffrage", lined the pavements.

The major highway through Admiralty was the focal point for the pro-democracy camp during the protests, when thousands of tents sprawled across the road.

Protest leaders on Monday encouraged the crowd to fight on. "The authorities will still be against us, but that doesn't mean we will give up," said student leader Lester Shum.

Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai called 2014 "one of the most important years in Hong Kong history". "The Umbrella Movement... was just the beginning for Hongkongers in their quest for democracy," he said.

Some protesters expressed their anger at the lack of progress. "We have not achieved universal suffrage," a woman in her 30s, who gave her name as Lam, told AFP. "Society is not geared to helping Hongkongers."

Ms Lam had brought her young son to the gathering. "He knows that what we are doing is to avoid a fake election," she said.

Others relaxed in the sun and browsed stalls of Umbrella Movement memorabilia.

Numbers were small in the early afternoon and with no concessions on political reform from the authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong, disheartened campaigners say they do not plan to start more mass demonstrations.

Around 100 protesters also gathered at the "Lennon Wall" - an outdoor staircase near the government headquarters that was plastered with thousands of multi-coloured paper notes expressing support during the rallies.

One couple soon to be married posed for pre-wedding photos at the former protest site, the bride-to-be wearing a strapless white wedding dress with a construction helmet - often worn by protesters during the rallies.

Couples in the city frequently have commemorative photos taken ahead of their weddings.

"The photos will be shared with our kids and grandkids and will show them what was happening in the city at the time of our marriage," said groom Issac Kan, 29.

Monday's events were billed by activists as a time for reflection as they struggle to breathe new life into the movement.

Dozens of pro-Beijing supporters also marched in central Hong Kong on Monday afternoon, shouting: "Hong Kong people have had enough!."

They accuse democracy activists of disrupting daily life in the city.

The police will deploy around 3,000 officers to protest areas, local media reported.

Democracy rally organisers have not given turnout estimates, but commemorative events held over the weekend drew small crowds.

Those who attended voiced belief in the pro-democracy cause.

"This commemoration is not only to mark the event but also to show that Hongkongers will continue down this path," said 21-year-old university student Catherine Shek.

"The movement is going through a state of rising and falling, with many people trying different types of methods."

Occupy Central was launched a year ago, calling for fully free leadership elections in the semi-autonomous city, following more than a week of student protests.

Thousands joined the already large crowds after police fired tear gas in the afternoon of Sept 28 last year, a move that shocked the public and galvanised the Umbrella Movement - named after the umbrellas protesters carried to shelter from sun, rain, tear gas and pepper spray.

For more than two months the centre of the city became an entrenched rally camp.

The protests began after China's central government said it would allow a popular vote for Hong Kong's leader in 2017, but insisted candidates were vetted.

The electoral package was voted down in June by pro-democracy lawmakers unhappy with the restrictions, leaving the territory with its existing system where the leader is chosen by a pro-Beijing election committee.

Hong Kong has been governed under a "one country, two systems" arrangement since it was handed back to China by Britain in 1997.

It allows far greater civil liberties than on the Chinese mainland, but there are growing fears those freedoms are being eroded.

Amnesty International called on Monday for Beijing to release eight mainland activists detained for supporting last year's protests.

Their support included posting messages and pictures online and holding banners in public with messages, Amnesty said.

It comes after Human Rights Watch last week called for an "independent and thorough investigation" into the Hong Kong government's handling of the Umbrella Movement.

A number of the city's activists are facing court cases over the protests while police officers allegedly involved in beating a protester have yet to be prosecuted.