Anti-globalisation protesters battled with riot police today and tried to storm a convention centre in Hong Kong where World Trade Organisation negotiators raced against the clock to reach a compromise they hoped would rescue the talks from being a flop.
With the six-day WTO meeting entering its final hours, delegates planned to meet through the night in hopes of bridging differences over a draft agreement that sought to inch toward a sweeping free-trade deal.
Outside the convention centre, police fired tear gas to quell hundreds of rioting protesters opposed to the WTO’s efforts to open global markets.
Later a government statement said 70 people – including 10 police – were sent to hospitals for treatment and three of them were admitted.
After the violent protest, about 300 to 400 people held a sit-in for several hours on one of the busiest streets in central Hong Kong.
But later police told the demonstrators that they would be arrested and began dragging them away from the scene.
The protesters, who included South Korean farmers, Southeast Asian groups and activists from Europe and America, bashed police with bamboo poles and used a metal barrier to ram a line of police armed with riot shields.
At one point, the activists broke through police lines and came close to storming the WTO’s harbour-side meeting venue in downtown Hong Kong.
The police fought back with clubs, pepper spray and water cannons that shot water mixed with a chemical that burned the skin and eyes.
It was the worst street violence that Hong Kong has experienced in decades. About 900 people were detained and 41 people, including five police officers, were injured, according to Police Commissioner Dick Lee.
Negotiations between the WTO’s 149 member nations and territories continued inside the convention hall largely uninterrupted, Keith Rockwell, chief WTO spokesman said.
“The conference has not been slowed down at all,” he said.
With the meeting ending tomorrow, delegates were intensely negotiating over a final agreement that showed only incremental progress after nearly a week of largely fruitless talks on how to reduce trade barriers in services, manufacturing and farming.
There was plenty left to be done, as the document was riddled with gaps and loopholes.
Many key parts of the draft agreement were in brackets, meaning that they had yet to be accepted by all members in the consensus-based WTO.
The Hong Kong meeting was originally meant to produce a detailed outline for a global free trade agreement by the end of 2006.
But the gathering appeared doomed before it began due largely to the European Union’s refusal to further open its agricultural market until it received offers from developing nations to lower their trade barriers to industrial goods and services.
Overnight talks were sure to focus on the contentious proposal to end export subsidies by 2010 – an issue that could make or break the entire gathering.
Developing nations have been pushing for the elimination of such government support to promote exports, saying it undercuts the competitive advantage of their farmers. But the EU has refused to agree to a date.
The EU was also unhappy that the services portion of the text had been watered down from a preliminary version released by WTO chief Pascal Lamy before the meeting began.
EU trade chief Peter Mandelson said the draft text lacked ambition and balance, but vowed to continue negotiations, including regarding export subsidies.
“I’m prepared to engage with them on this subject, but not in isolation,” he said.
In a victory for West African cotton growers, the draft calls for rich nations to end export subsidies for cotton in 2006. This represents a US concession to demands by African countries that say government support for farmers in rich countries is driving many poor farmers out of work.
But US Trade Representative said the measure would be a tough sell when they return to lawmakers in Washington.
Brazil’s External Affairs Minister Celso Amorim said developing countries will continue to exert pressure on the EU and stressed the need to nail down an end date to export subsidies “for the poorest of the poor”.
“For them, an end date for export subsidies is absolutely essential,” he said.
After previous collapses at meetings in Cancun, Mexico, and Seattle, the WTO’s credibility would be dealt a serious blow if negotiators are unable to reach an agreement here.
“The penalties of failure, the economic consequences are very real,” said Harold McGraw II, chairman of The McGraw-Hill Companies, who was among many business executives in Hong Kong lobbying for progress, especially on lowering tariffs and other limits on manufactured goods and services.
With little time left, Lamy ordered delegates to focus on the negotiations, said Rockwell, the chief spokesman.
“There will be a heavy responsibility on anyone who lets this chance slip away,” he cited Lamy as saying.