HONG KONG >> Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists agreed Sunday to remove some barriers blocking roads and sidewalks ahead of the government’s deadline to scale back their protests. But the demonstrators appeared to be divided, and others refused to budge, with only hours to go.
An alliance of students said it had tried but so far failed to reach agreement with officials on a plan to begin talks on their demands for wider political reforms. The group vowed to continue protests until details of the talks might be worked out.
“If the government uses force to clear away protesters, there will be no room for dialogue,” Lester Shum, one of the group’s leaders, told reporters.
Earlier in the day, students occupying the area just outside city government headquarters agreed to remove some barricades that were blocking the building’s entrance, after the government said it would do whatever was necessary to ensure 3,000 civil servants would have full access to their offices on Monday.
The partial withdrawal appeared to be part of a strategy to regroup in another part of town, as protesters were urged to shift from other areas to Hong Kong’s Admiralty shopping and business district, a central location near the government’s main offices that has served as an informal headquarters for the protests.
Alex Chow, another student leader, said he was not worried about the crowd dwindling as people prepared to return to work and school on Monday.
“Because people need rest, but they will come out again. It doesn’t mean the movement is diminishing. Many people still support it,” Chow said.
Officials said they intended to have key streets open for schools and offices by Monday morning, but it was unclear whether they would act to clear the streets and other areas by force or just settle for a partial victory in clearing some roads. The government announced a reopening of schools and some roads, but indicated some disruptions were likely to continue.
“To restore order, we are determined, and we are confident we have the capability to take any necessary action,” police spokesman Steve Hui said. “There should not be any unreasonable, unnecessary obstruction by any members of the public.”
Television footage showed a man shaking hands with a police officer outside government headquarters and the two sides removing some barricades together. About 300 demonstrators stood by outside the government building’s main entrance, but then many sat back down and refused to leave. Later in the evening, some barriers along walkways into the building were moved out of the way.
“I’m against any kind of withdrawal or tendency to surrender,” said Do Chan, a protester in his 30s. “I think withdrawing, I mean shaking hands with the police, is a very ugly gesture of surrender.”
The situation remained volatile across the harbor in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district, a shopping area where ugly confrontations broke out Friday and Saturday after opponents of the protesters tried to force them out. Many demonstrators heeded calls to head home or shift to the Admiralty area. A few hundred, however, appeared determined to stay. As the evening wore on, some sang songs and clapped, while groups of older men lingered nearby, smoking and drinking, as police stood watch.
“I don’t know what the next step is, but I will not retreat. The people you see here will not retreat,” said Burnett Tung, an 18-year-old student who has served as a volunteer at a food-supply station outside government headquarters all week.
In Mong Kok late Sunday, police officers carrying guns patrolled the area, and at least one officer was seen carrying tear gas canisters.
“This is a public place. People need to use this road. People need to live here,” said Johnson Cheung, 26, 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.”
Tens of thousands of people, many of them students, have poured into the streets of the semi-autonomous city since Sept. 28 to peacefully protest China’s restrictions on the first-ever direct election for Hong Kong’s leader, promised by Beijing for 2017. 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.
China has promised that Hong Kong 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 also are demanding the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, the city’s current leader. He has refused to step down.
With the standoff stretching into a second week, tempers flared and patience was waning among residents who oppose the occupation of the streets and the disruption it has brought.
Police said they had arrested 30 people since the start of the protests and that they used pepper spray overnight Saturday on crowds that had provoked officers with verbal abuse. Protesters, meanwhile, complained the police were failing to protect them from attacks by mobs intent on driving them away. The students say police have allied themselves with criminal gangs to clear them, but the government has denied the accusation.
Some protesters kept masks and goggles handy in case police used tear gas to disperse them, as they did the previous weekend. University administrators 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, president of Hong Kong University. “Please leave now. You owe it to your loved ones to put your safety above all other considerations.”
Associated Press writers Sylvia Hui and Louise Watt contributed to this report.