The government Friday insisted the protests and clashes with police over the fate of the Star Ferry pier and its clock tower are politically motivated and threatened tougher action, including stiffer charges against the 13 protesters detained early Friday morning, according to a reliable source.
The police action, and the stand by the government, signaled the end for the tower and the Westminster chimes that sounded from it every 15 minutes for close to 50 years.
"It is no longer just an environmental issue. Anti-policy groups have seized the opportunity to stage protests. From now, on the police will be tougher on protesters.They are seeking legal advice to charge the 13 who were arrested this morning with more serious offenses," the source said.
The pan-democrats, meanwhile, plan a concern group, called Heritage Watch, and 25 legislators will hold a candlelight vigil December 24 under the banner: "Christmas night without the clock tower."
Legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip, of the League of Social Democrats, said they would launch a naming competition so the public could suggest iconic Hong Kong landmarks that should be preserved, such as City Hall, the Hong Kong Club and the General Post Office in Central.
Earlier in the day, Permanent Secretary for the Environment, Transport and Works Mak Chai- kwong rejected calls to halt the demolition, saying shifting the alignment of the proposed bypass would involve major changes and introduce a "very sharp bend" in the road to avoid the pier. "Every component of the whole Central Reclamation Project has undergone detailed consideration and statutory consultation procedures before we arrived at the design. At such an advanced stage, changing any part of the project would have a major impact on its progress," he said.
"The clock tower is a relatively flimsy structure built on the ferry pier to form an integrated structure. We have to demolish the pier, and the structure of the clock tower cannot be preserved."
Mak added that any shift from the original plan would be incompatible with surrounding works, such as the extended overrun tunnel of the airport railway and the proposed extension of the Man Yiu Street stormwater drain to the new waterfront.
Following a candlelight vigil held by about 200 people to mark the old pier's 49th anniversary Thursday night, protesters again stormed the demolition site, with some managing to climb the scaffolding and erect a banner demanding a meeting with Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands Michael Suen Ming-yeung.
Police quickly erected a barricade surrounding the protesters and around 3am Friday moved to arrest them.
The remaining protesters, including controversial radio host Raymond Wong Yuk-man, tried to stop the arresting police car by forming a human roadblock across Connaught Road. Some jumped in front of the moving vehicle.
During the scuffles, a protester and a policeman were slightly injured and taken to hospital.
Eight men and five women, aged between 20 and 41, were taken to North Point Police Station. They were released on HK$300 police bail and ordered to report back next month.
In a statement released on the In Media Web site, protesters demanded police drop all charges against them, as well as a halt to the works, a meeting with Suen and for all documents regarding future town planning to be released to the public. One of the arrested protesters, student Cat Mak Ka-lui, 22, was unrepentant and swore to continue the campaign to preserve the pier and clock tower. She accused police at the scene of being unnecessarily aggressive and insensitive in dealing with peaceful protesters.
"While we were protesting peacefully outside the site, police kept barging into us and pushing us back without provocation. When one protester who was sick wanted to go to the toilet, the police demanded to see her ID card - when she refused, she had to do it in a plastic bag. We had to open our umbrellas to protect her modesty because one policeman was taking pictures," she said.
Fellow activist Lee Wai-yi, 31, said they would conduct a debate at the pier today organized by Baptist University students to discuss sustainable development, and they planned to hold a march Sunday. Meanwhile, protesters will maintain shifts around the clock to keep up the pressure on the government.
Calls to save the clock tower intensified Tuesday when protesters stormed the demolition site after the bell of the clock was removed, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the tower.
Lawmakers have called for a halt to the works until an expert panel can convene to discuss whether the clock tower can be saved.
Suen said the government would consider re- erecting the clock tower on the new harborfront.