HONG KONG—Hong Kong’s top leader condemned protesters who clashed with riot police this weekend over a contentious proposal for a high-speed railway, accusing them of “irresponsible behavior” that violated “Hong Kong’s core values.”
In his first public remarks since the Saturday vote, Chief Executive Donald Tsang took an unusually tough line on the protesters, who he called “a small minority of people bent on disturbing public peace.”
Mr. Tsang’s harsh words are likely to further ratchet up tensions amid a growing debate over the political future of this Chinese special administrative region. Mr. Tsang is in the midst of pitching a major package of constitutional reforms that he says will move Hong Kong closer to eventual direct elections, but which his critics say is a dead end. Currently, Hong Kong elects its leaders through a system that reserves seats for business groups and other special interests and is heavily influenced by Beijing.
China promised Hong Kong direct elections ahead of the former British colony’s return to Chinese sovereignty but didn’t specify when that would happen. Major disagreements over how and when to introduce direct elections have been a major source of friction in Hong Kong.
The fight over the railway became an unexpected flash point for larger questions about governance in Hong Kong. A vocal group of critics accusing officials of pushing it through the legislature without addressing public concerns, which include the displacement of a rural village and accusations that the project would benefit mainly large property developers.
The anger boiled over on Saturday during a marathon two-day legislative session to approve funding for the railway, which would link Hong Kong with southern China. Opposition lawmakers turned to filibuster-style tactics in an attempt to delay the vote, while hundreds of protesters besieged Hong Kong’s legislature, beating drums and chanting slogans. After the vote passed, protesters clashed with riot police bearing shields and pepper spray, paralyzing Hong Kong’s downtown district, though only minor injuries were reported.
Protesters linked arms and lay on the surrounding streets to block Eva Cheng, the secretary for transport and housing who spearheaded the railway’s passage through the legislature, from leaving. Just after midnight, Ms. Cheng was able to slip into a nearby subway station under the protection of a police guard.
Mr. Tsang said at a press conference Monday that the government “will absolutely not accept this kind of behavior,” which he said hurt public order and drowned out reasonable debate. “The protesters must reflect on their actions,” Mr. Tsang said.
Mr. Tsang said the government would quickly start construction, even in the face of continued criticism. He pledged to spend money as prudently as possible, and said officials would do a better job in seeking public opinion ahead of future public works projects.
In separate remarks, Ms. Cheng, the transport secretary, said she had considered coming out to meet protesters, but changed her mind after deciding that her appearance could “incite chaos.” “Safety has to come first, ” Ms. Cheng said.
Ambrose Lee, Hong Kong’s secretary for security, called the protests “violent acts” that “violated our stability and law and order.”
“The police have the will and the capability to maintain law and order and stability, and we will act strictly according to the law,” Mr. Lee said