SHAFAQNA – The crowds of protesters thronging Hong Kongs streets were somewhat lighter on Sunday evening relative to previous days after CY Leung, Hong Kong chief executive, said he would take “all necessary actions” to restore order in the financial hub.
However, even as some heeded the growing calls to retreat, the pro-democracy “Occupy” movement is gearing up for a confrontation with police.
The Hong Kong government conceded it did not expect the disruption to be fully resolved by Monday morning – the deadline set by Mr Leung for the streets to be cleared – although it has announced steps to allow some children to return to school.
Lawmakers and university leaders on Sunday urged demonstrators and onlookers to leave the main protest area near the Hong Kong government offices in Admiralty, ahead of a deadline to clear the area by Monday morning.
Calls for Hong Kong’s students to suspend their movement at least temporarily, are growing, with some noting that the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre might have been avoided if Chinese university students had decided to return to their dormitories sooner.
“The seeds have already been sown [in Hong Kong] and they need time to lie fallow,” Bao Tong, a former Chinese government official purged in 1989, said in a commentary published by Radio Free Asia. “No great task can be achieved all at once.”
However, not everyone was heeding the calls – not least in Mongkok, the densely-packed area where violent scuffles broke out over the weekend and where hundreds of students chose to stay put, despite the threat of violence or police action.
“If the majority agrees to leave, we leave. Otherwise, we stay,” said Dean Shing, a student protester. “The more people we have, the safer we are.”
A spokesman for Occupy Central – one of three groups spearheading the protest movement – said it was unclear whether the police would act before Monday. Tommy Cheung said the protest leaders were talking to government officials about the possibility of arranging a meeting.
In the case that the police did move in, Mr Cheung said Occupy would decide whether to recommend that people leave depending on the level of force deployed. He said protesters would be urged to disperse if the police used rubber bullets, but if the police only used pepper spray and tear gas Occupy might recommend people stay in the area and take cover.
The district has been paralysed since last Sunday as hundreds of thousands of people have flooded the streets to protest a controversial Chinese plan for electoral reform in the territory that critics have described as “sham democracy”.
Jimmy Lai, the anti-Beijing media tycoon, said people were concerned at talk of police action. He said that while the police might be able to clear the streets in Mongkok and immediately around the government buildings, it would be tougher to disperse the bigger crowds in Admirality.
The “Occupy” movement – also dubbed the “Umbrella revolution” after people used umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas – has created a huge headache for Beijing. The People’s Daily, the main Communist party mouthpiece, has in recent days run front-page editorials lambasting the “chaos” in Hong Kong.
The traffic department said it was expecting serious congestion on Monday morning due to the road closures in the city centre, which it said would effect the routes of almost 1.6m commuters.
Kitty Choi, director of administration, said the government was “still in the process of reaching out” to student groups to negotiate a reopening of access to the main government building in time for Monday morning. “Civil servants just want to go back to work,” she said.
Peter Mathieson, the president of the University of Hong Kong, appealed to students to leave the area, according to the Associated Press. “I am making this appeal from my heart because I genuinely believe that if you stay, there is a risk to your safety,” he said.
China last month agreed to allow Hong Kong people to vote for a chief executive for the first time in 2017. But the pro-democracy campaign has criticised the move because the public would have no say in nominating candidates who would essentially be pre-screened by Beijing.
Mr Leung has urged people to back the plan, which needs legislative approval, on the grounds that it gives locals a greater say than they ever had under British rule. But many of the protesters who were just children when Britain handed back Hong Kong to China in 1997 want to fight for democracy on their own terms.
Additional reporting by Tom Mitchell in Beijing and Julie Zhu