In a rare scene of disorder, Hong Kong authorities cleared out hundreds of protesters who blocked part of the city's financial district early Wednesday, a high-profile reflection of rising anxiety over Beijing's tightening grip on the little enclave of incomplete democracy at the southeastern edge of Communist China.
Police arrested 511 people who staged an unauthorized overnight sit-in on an avenue running through the heart of the city after a rally the day before in which tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in the streets to push for the right to elect their leader free of limits Beijing wants to impose.
The protesters wanted to "occupy" the street until 8 a.m., just before the height of rush hour, as a rehearsal for a larger demonstration planned by the group Occupy Central with Peace and Love to shut down the financial district if the Hong Kong government fails to come up with satisfactory democratic reforms.
Police started moving in at around 3 a.m. to take people away from Chater Road after they ignored warnings. One by one, demonstrators who had locked arms with each other were forcibly removed by hundreds of officers and taken away, some carried off their feet, to waiting police vans.
The protest's messy aftermath is the latest sign of worries that, with Hong Kong only a third of the way through a 50-year period in which mainland China is supposed to stay largely hands-off from the city's affairs, Beijing is failing to keep its end of the bargain.
Organizers said 510,000 people — the highest estimate in a decade — turned out for Tuesday's protest march, an annual fixture held on a holiday marking Hong Kong's return to China in 1997. A big factor boosting turnout this year was the release last month of a policy document or "white paper" by China's Cabinet stating that Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy isn't inherent but authorized by the central government.