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HONG KONG - Battles between police and protesters for control of a key underpass could be a catalyst for Hong Kong’s stalled pro-democracy protests — but opinion was divided Wednesday on whether the clashes would help or harm the so-called "Umbrella Revolution."
Police arrested about 45 protesters early Wednesday, using pepper spray against those who resisted, as they cleared a four-lane main road in the Chinese-controlled city that protesters had blocked with concrete slabs.
Video footage of police beating one protester went viral, sparking outrage from some lawmakers and the public. Some journalists on the scene were also warned they would be pepper-sprayed. Authorities said the officers involved in the beating would be suspended.
The incident could galvanize support for the pro-democracy movement in the city where the protests over Chinese restrictions on how it chooses its next leader had dwindled from about 100,000 at their peak to just a few hundred.
However, there are signs that some in the crowded and busy financial hub are growing tired of the protests, which have forced the closure of main streets.
Hong Kong's most prominent tycoon, Li Ka-shing, on Wednesday urged protesters go home, saying any breakdown of law and order would be the city's "greatest sorrow."
"I urge everyone not to be agitated. I urge everyone not to let today's passion become the regret for tomorrow," said Li, who is Asia’s richest man. "I earnestly request everyone to return to their families."
That view was echoed by Joshua Tai, an 18-year-old student who said the decision to occupy Lung Wo street — including twin tunnels were dozens of police were at point surrounded — could sway opinion towards authorities.
“I think public perception of students after last night will be quite negative,” he told NBC News. “You can see now that the movement is gradually not under control anymore. People can just go out there and maybe not act as peaceful as the occupation was before.”
Hong Kong Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok said police would investigate the beating of the protester in the video, who pro-democracy lawmaker Alan Leong identified as Ken Tsang Kin-chiu, a fellow member of the Civic Party.
“The use of power of police is an abuse,” Leong said. “We certainly urge the police to immediately arrest these six to seve officers and start a criminal investigation.”
Lai confirmed that the officers shown in the video would be suspended.
Chan Tak Chun, a church pastor who is nearly 60, said police had done a “very dirty thing” in forcibly clearing students from the road.
“I think last night will make the students even more determined to fight for their cause,” he said. “When the action is strong, the reaction is equally strong. I think the government should have dialogue with the students to arrive at a win-win situation.”
Michael Wong, a 48-year-old trader, agreed. “Maybe it was not a good decision [by protesters] to reoccupy the streets … but you have to see the other side," he said. "Are there any people from the government actually trying to talk them? None of them, they refuse. So all the students can do is sit outside and ask the government to speak to them.”
He added: “The public now has a very bad image of the Hong Kong police because you can see from the news that the police didn’t do anything to win the public over. But they fought the students very hard using pepper spray and other force. Last night was a shocking image for us. We cannot accept the way the police treated the students. You can just see that the students just stood there with the hands up in the air and the police fired pepper spray just inches from their faces.”
The street altercation took place in the Admiralty district near government headquarters.
The protesters are also calling for its pro-Beijing leader, Leung Chun-ying, to step down. But Leung last week said there was "zero chance" China's leaders would give in to protesters' demands and change the August decision limiting democracy.
NBC News' Alastair Jamieson, and Reuters, contributed to this report.