SHAFAQNA – Students occupying the area outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters agreed Sunday to remove some barricades that have blocked the building’s entrance during weeklong pro-democracy protests, as police warned of taking “all necessary measures” to clear the streets by the beginning of the work week. Television footage from the scene showed a protest representative shaking hands with a police officer, but it was not immediately clear whether all the students had decided to withdraw. The move appeared to be part of a strategy to regroup in another part of town.
Across the harbor in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district, protesters were divided about whether to stay put or decamp to the city’s Admiralty section, the main protest site.
Tens of thousands of people, many of them students, have poured into the streets of the semi-autonomous city over the past week to peacefully protest China’s restrictions on the first-ever direct election for Hong Kong’s top leader, promised by Beijing for 2017. But with the standoff between the protesters and the government in its eighth day, tempers were flaring and patience was waning among residents who oppose the occupation of the streets and the disruption it has brought.
Police armed with pepper spray and batons clashed with pro-democracy protesters overnight, after officials said they intended to have key streets open for schools and offices by Monday morning. Large crowds of protesters scuffled with police in the blue-collar Mong Kok district in Kowloon, a flash point that has seen violent clashes between pro-democracy student protesters and their antagonists over the weekend.
Police said they had to disperse the crowds with force because protesters had provoked officers with verbal abuse, while the students accuse police of failing to protect them from attacks by mobs intent on driving them away. The students say police allied with criminal gangs to clear them, but the government has vehemently denied the accusation.
The crowds drifted back into the Mong Kok intersection blocked by the protesters, with hundreds milling around the area by late Sunday afternoon.
Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, appeared on television Saturday evening to once again urge everyone to go home, saying key roads paralyzed by protesters needed to return to normal by Monday.
“The government and the police have the duty and determination to take all necessary actions to restore social order so the government and the 7 million people of Hong Kong can return to their normal work and life,” Leung said.
Police said they had arrested 30 people since the protests started Sept. 28, and that 27 police officers had been injured while on duty in the protest areas.
“To restore order, we are determined and we are confident we have the capability to take any necessary action,” said police spokesman Steve Hui. “We have to make correct assessments, then depending on the prevailing situation, we will consider all necessary measures.”
Asked to clarify the authorities’ demands for clearing areas near government offices, Hui would only say government workers needed to work.
“There should not be any unreasonable, unnecessary obstruction by any members of the public,” he said.
The atmosphere on the streets was tense Sunday amid fears police may use pepper spray and tear gas to disperse the protesters, as they did last weekend. The University of Hong Kong, among others, warned students to leave the streets.
“I am making this appeal from my heart because I genuinely believe that if you stay, there is a risk to your safety,” said Peter Mathieson, the university’s president. “Please leave now. You owe it to your loved ones to put your safety above all other considerations.”
The protests are the strongest challenge to authorities in Hong Kong — and in Beijing —since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing has promised that the city can have universal suffrage by 2017, but it says a committee of mostly pro-Beijing figures must screen candidates for the top job. The protesters are also demanding Leung’s resignation, but he has refused.
The next steps are uncertain, after student leaders called off planned talks with the government until officials respond to claims that police tolerated attacks by alleged mobsters.
“In the last week we have seen the police have cooperated with gangs and triads. They are no longer law enforcers. I don’t think they deserve our respect anymore,” said accountant Tony Chan, 26.
The government said Sunday that it was happy to talk to the students, and that it hoped protest leaders would cooperate and allow the reopening of the roads outside the government’s headquarters.
Protesters were gathering Sunday in Hong King’s Admiralty district, a key ground for the movement, following a massive rally lasting hours Saturday night.
The arrival of three police vans at the protest ground outside Leung’s office sparked fears among the protesters that the vehicles were carrying arms that could be used against them. Police negotiators tried to persuade the protesters to let the vans through, and said they carried only food and water for officers.
“I believe there will be lots of people who want to stop the police from clearing this place,” said Jack Fung, a 19-year-old student. “But if the police use rubber bullets, or real bullets, there will be many people who will leave the place, because it will be too dangerous.”
Fung said he supported allowing civil servants to go back to work Monday, but he believed protesters should block Leung from entering his office.
In Mong Kok, the violence calmed later Sunday, but rowdy crowds kept up loud and heated street arguments. Many residents and businesspeople are fed up with the disruption, saying they want to return to normal life as soon as possible.
Police officers carrying guns patrolled the area, and at least one officer was seen carrying tear gas canisters.
Johnson Cheung, 26, was among about 60 of the movement’s opponents. He said he supported the freedom of expression, but complained that the protesters were driving away tourists and income for businesses.
“This is a public place, people need to use this road, people need to live here,” said Cheung, who works in a duty-free shop. “The students don’t need to make a living, their parents pay for them. But we have jobs, we have to live.”
In Admiralty, an unidentified man who opposed the protests drew media attention when he stood on a footbridge as if to jump. Firefighters opened an air cushion beneath him as he demanded that the students leave.
“You’ve been out here a whole week. I have three kids who need to go to school and I need to go to work,” he shouted at the crowd.
Associated Press writer Elaine Kurtenbach contributed to this report.