Protests that began peacefully late Friday night in the semiautonomous city of Hong Kong escalated on Sunday when riot police fired tear gas into the sitting crowds in an attempt to clear protestors from the government center.

According to a report in the Associated Press, protestors had begun organizing around government headquarters on Friday in order to begin a dialogue about democratic reforms and freedom from Beijing.

Students and activists have been camped out since late Friday on the streets outside the government complex, located just a few blocks from Hong Kong's downtown financial district. Students started the rally, but leaders of the broader Occupy Central civil disobedience movement said early Sunday that they were joining them to kick-start a long-threatened mass sit-in to demand that an election for Hong Kong's leader be held without Beijing's interference.

The protests reportedly became chaotic on Sunday, causing clashes between demonstrators and riot police. After tear gas was fired into the crowd, many fled away from the scene, but then reportedly came right back to continue the protest. Police have issued a statement asking that protestors leave "peacefully and orderly," threatening that if they remain, force will be used.

College students were behind the initial protests, boycotting classes for a week and claiming they will continue the fight until their demands are met, "which include reform of Hong Kong's legislature and withdrawing the proposal to screen the election candidates," the AP reports.

As of Sunday morning, 78 people had been arrested. The protest can be streamed live here.

[Images via AP]