HONG KONG - Hundreds of Hong Kong police forcibly removed kicking and screaming protesters from the Central business district on Wednesday, holdouts of a mass rally demanding greater democracy from Communist Party rulers in Beijing.
The pro-democracy march on Tuesday, which organisers said attracted more than 510,000 people, and a subsequent sit-in by mainly student groups could be the biggest challenge yet to China which resumed control over the former British colony on July 1, 1997.
Many of the more than 1,000 protesters linked arms in a bid to resist efforts to remove them but they were taken away one at a time, in some cases by three or four police, as activists kicked, screamed and punched before being bundled on to buses.
"I have the right to protest. We don't need police permission," the crowd chanted as they sat sweltering in Hong Kong's summer heat and humidity.
Some remained defiant even after their arrest.
"Civil disobedience is not a one-time matter. I will come out to protest again, because it is the only way Hong Kong can change," said To Chun Ho, who was released on Wednesday without charge.
Activists who refused to leave were taken in buses to the police training school in Hong Kong. More than 500 people were arrested, with some charged with participating in an unauthorised assembly and obstructing police.
It was unclear how long they would be detained. About 50 were released without charge.
"Our purpose is first universal suffrage and second to let the government respond to Hong Kong citizens' voice for democracy," said Frank Chio, a representative of the Hong Kong Federation of Students.
"This is only step one. There will be other steps."
While minor scuffles broke out between police and activists, the stand-off ended peacefully despite earlier fears of violence.
Retired mainland officials had earlier warned that the local garrison of the People's Liberation Army might be needed to restore order in an increasingly restive Hong Kong, but there was no suggestion they were needed this week as police threw 4,000 staff at the task.
WEAPON OF LAST RESORT
In one of the first moves of what is expected to be a hot political summer, the demonstrators were demanding greater democracy in elections for Hong Kong's leader, or chief executive, in 2017.
They want nominations to be open to everyone. China's leaders want to ensure only pro-Beijing candidates are on the ballot.
Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997 with wide-ranging autonomy under an agreed formula of "one country, two systems", allowing protests such as Tuesday's march to take place.
But China bristles at open dissent, especially over sensitive matters such as demands for universal suffrage and the annual June 4 vigil in Hong Kong to mark the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989.
Such protests, even by one or two people, would be met by stern punishment elsewhere in China.
Anson Chan, the former head of Hong Kong's civil service who served both before and after the handover, urged Britain to push China harder to meet its promises to Hong Kong.
"I would like Britain to speak up and say hey, we are noticing what is happening, you cannot treat Hong Kong like this, you cannot walk away from your commitments," she told Reuters on Wednesday.
"And if you want to see stability and good governance in Hong Kong, we have to have a chief executive who has legitimacy."
Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the group behind an unofficial referendum on democracy which drew nearly 800,000 votes, has threatened to lock down Central as part of its campaign.
"The voice of the Hong Kong people has been loud and so clear. If they (Beijing and the Hong Kong government) choose to ignore it, they will have to pay the price," said Helena Wong of the Democratic Party.
"Occupy Central is the last resort ... We will keep it as our last weapon if we do not have true democracy."
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said on Tuesday his government would do its "utmost" to move towards universal suffrage and stressed the need for stability. Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong said China "firmly supported" universal suffrage for Hong Kong, and "its sincerity and determination is unswerving".
The overnight protest threatened to disrupt traffic as people returned to work following a public holiday on Tuesday to mark the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China.
Some buildings in Central, including HSBC's headquarters, were ringed by barriers, although these were largely cleared as business resumed.