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Pro-Democracy Activists Occupy Hong Kong's Business District
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Pro-Democracy Activists Occupy Hong Kong's Business District

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Pro-Democracy Activists Occupy Hong Kong's Business District

Pro-Democracy Activists Occupy Hong Kong's Business District
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Thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are calling for free elections. Many spent Sunday night camped out on the streets after police fired tear gas and used batons to try to disperse them.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are continuing their occupation of the city's main business district. This standoff between pro-democracy activists and the police is in its third day. Many protesters spent Sunday night camped out on the streets after police fired tear gas and used batons. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in central Hong Kong, and Anthony, what are you seeing?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Steve, I'm standing on a pedestrian overpass overlooking a sea of people sitting, standing. This is right around the entrance to the central government offices and right in the middle of the central business district, and the police have totally withdrawn from this area. They've just given it over to the protesters, and the protesters around me are pretty young. But there are people of all ages, and they're extremely well organized. We've got people sorting rubbish for recycling and handing out water, and umbrellas in case there's pepper spray, and goggles in case there's tear gas.

INSKEEP: Anthony, we've seen amazing images of people confronting the police with colorful umbrellas. Does that actually have an effect? Are they actually able to defend themselves?

KUHN: Well, what happened all through last night, Steve, was that the police tried to clear areas of the central business district. They'd spray pepper spray, and the protesters would ward it off with umbrellas. They would fire canisters of tear gas, and the protesters would back off, cough a little, regroup and come right back up to the front lines. And so in the end, it was the police that beat a tactical retreat.

INSKEEP: Now let's just remind people why it is that they are protesting. Hong Kong is run by China, but - what? - is supposed to have different rules than the rest of the country.

KUHN: That's right. When it returned to China - to Chinese rule in 1997, it was not only allowed to keep its capitalist system, but more importantly it was allowed to keep its common-law system. That means it's got a separation of powers between the judicial, the executive and the legislative, and that's not how it works in China. It's a Unitarian, Communist Party-ruled state in China. The only reason the Chinese have the flexibility to do this was Hong Kong was very important to the Chinese economy at that point. Now it's not so important, and the Chinese are no longer as flexible.

So the Chinese promised Hong Kong that they would be able to elect their own leaders by the year 2017. But this year they said that all the candidates for that election would have to go through a nominating committee, which the critics say are just a bunch of pro-Beijing elites. And so they feel they have no choice when there's an election.

INSKEEP: Well, I do have to ask, Anthony Kuhn, because our former colleague Louisa Lim wrote a book about the Tiananmen Square uprising 25 years ago now in 1989. And part of this sequence of events there was that the Chinese authorities withdrew from Tiananmen Square, left it in the hands of the protesters but then came back and in massive force. People must be wondering what's going to happen next.

KUHN: That's right, Steve. The chief executive of Hong Kong, CY Leung, spoke to the people last night, and he made it clear that the police were going to maintain order. They were going to maintain discipline. He said they were not going to deploy the Chinese army against the protesters - clearly addressing concerns that there would be a repeat of Tiananmen Square. The protesters do not see it this way. They do not feel the police were restrained because they said they were well-ordered and peaceful, and there was no reason for the police to use tear gas and pepper spray on them in the first place.

INSKEEP: Anthony, is there any sense of what the rest of China is thinking about this? For one thing, is the rest of China even learning about this?

KUHN: The Chinese government seems to be playing this very carefully. They're only saying that the protests are illegal and that they support the Hong Kong's government in its handling of the matter. They're also doing as much deleting as they can of pictures and information coming out of the area. Things like Instagram are being blocked in China, so a lot of people are not able to see pictures either through social media or through the state-controlled Chinese media.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Hong Kong. Anthony, thanks very much.

KUHN: You're welcome, Steve.

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