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Hong Kong activists start bigger protest amid standoff

Hong Kong: Hong Kong activists kicked off a long-threatened mass civil disobedience protest today to challenge Beijing over restrictions on voting reforms, escalating the battle for democracy in the former British colony after police arrested dozens of student demonstrators.

The announcement by civil leaders came after a big crowd of tens of thousands turned out around midnight yesterday to support the student protesters who stormed into a courtyard of the government complex and scuffled with police wielding pepper spray. Police arrested at least 74 people, including some in their teens.

The night passed peacefully as more than 1,000 exhausted and weary protesters most of them students remained on the streets outside government headquarters. They slept wearing face masks and makeshift protective gear of Saran-wrapped arms, cheap plastic raincoats and goggles, as tired-looking riot police looked on.

More students anxiously hurried to join them Sunday morning, some saying they didn't want to leave their friends in fear police would crack down. Leaders of Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a broader movement fighting for democratic reform, said they were starting their mass protest by continuing the sit-in begun earlier by a separate group of student demonstrators.

The Occupy Central movement had originally planned to paralyze the Asian financial hub's central business district on wednesday, but organizers moved up the start of their protest and changed the location in an apparent bid to harness momentum from the student rally outside the government complex in the southern Chinese city.

Democracy supporters are demanding that China's Communist leaders allow fully democratic elections in 2017. China, which took control of the former British colony in 1997, has promised that Hong Kong's top leader can be chosen through universal suffrage.

But tensions over Hong Kong's political future boiled over after China's legislature last month ruled out letting the public nominate candidates, instead insisting they be screened by a committee of Beijing loyalists similar to the one that currently picks the city's leader.

Hong Kong's young people have been among the most vocal supporters of full democracy in recent years, fueled by anger over widening inequality. They also fear that Beijing's tightening grip is eroding the city's rule of law and guaranteed civil liberties unseen on the mainland such as freedom of speech.

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