Hong Kong – Student leaders of a week-long pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong agreed to remove some barricades blocking Hong Kong’s government headquarters Sunday night in the face of officials’ demands that the occupation end by Monday morning, when government employees return to work.
But despite earlier reports that protesters would be abandoning their blockade of the Hong Kong chief executive’s office, as well as the student leaders’ entreaties to draw back, hundreds of demonstrators remained camped out in front of the government headquarters.
At 9pm, a sizable crowd was sitting in front of barricades along the driveway into the chief executive’s office. Many rushed to the scene after video and reports circulated of a group of students agreeing to leave out of fear that police would use tear gas and force to clear them out Sunday night.
Nicholas Chan, 25, said he ran over when he saw the news on social media around 6pm. Since then, he and dozens of others have not budged from their spot.
“I’m planning to stay all night here, I have clothes I can use as a pillow if necessary,” he said. Some of his friends had retreated to other protest sites, like the main encampment in front of the government headquarters and the Central business district, viewing them as safer locations.
Many who had taken up position outside the chief executive’s office said that if police try to clear out the protesters, this would be the first battle line. They pointed out that this was the road Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying would have to take to get to work.
“I’m here because I want to see for myself just how far police will go if all we do is sit here peacefully,” he said.
The decentralized nature of the demonstrations and occupations — a protest against voting restrictions imposed by Beijing — meant that it was virtually impossible to dissuade many of the hard-core demonstrators from standing their ground.
Parallel occupations also continued in the neighborhoods of Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, even as tensions between local residents and protesters mounted. Student leaders had called on the protesters in Mong Kok to withdraw, fearing for their safety, but crowds remained there as night fell on Sunday.
A host of university presidents and high school principals appealed to students to withdraw. “Please leave now. You owe it to your loved ones to put your safety above all other considerations,” said Peter Mathieson, president of Hong Kong University.
The previous night, protesters had turned out in force at a rally near the government headquarters, in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district, galvanized after days of flagging momentum by violent attacks on their ranks and an ultimatum by authorities to clear out of the streets by Monday morning.
Some demonstrators admitted that they planned to leave the site, but others insisted that they wanted to see the protest through to the very end — which could involve a police crackdown.
The huge turnout Saturday was driven in part by attacks over the past two days against the largely peaceful protesters. Accusations have grown that police were in league with assailants, who many believe were sent by triad gangs, part of Chinese organized crime.
Collusion is suspected because of authorities’ often delayed and tepid response to the violence directed at the protesters and because of an apparent reluctance by police to arrest the attackers.
Officials deny the accusation, but outrage over the weak police response caused protest organizers to pull out of planned talks with Hong Kong’s government.
Increasing the pressure Saturday, Leung in a televised statement insisted that the government condemns all violence but argued that the only solution to the attacks is for the protesters to go home.
“The most urgent thing is to clear the way to the government offices on Monday morning,” Leung said.
Representatives of three protest groups responded by saying that they would not block government buildings. One of the student groups said it would be willing to resume talks with the government if the authorities opened an investigation into how police handled the attacks.
The crowd outside the government headquarters appeared to be the largest in recent days. Protesters filled a vast expanse of the six-lane road that has been the main staging ground of the demonstrations.
The rally was a show of defiance, marked by songs, raucous pro-democracy chants and speeches hailing the students demonstrators’ accomplishments. Some in attendance viewed the moment as a kind of coda to the protests, led by a new generation that refuses to let Beijing dictate the terms by which Hong Kong’s society is governed.
“This may be over tomorrow,” said Ada Lam, 25, a kindergarten teacher. “But we will never lose this time. We will go forward with it in our hearts.”
The resurgent protest around the government’s headquarters came as demonstrations elsewhere in the city appeared to be fizzling.
Morale among the protesters had sagged after Friday, when it became clear that students’ demands would not be fully met.
Many were also exhausted. “I will stay here as long as others are staying here,” said David Chan, a university student. “But I am tired. My family wants me to come home. I miss my bed.”
– The Washington Post