By John Ruwitch and Donny Kwok
Hong Kong started to return to work on Monday after more than a week of pro-democracy protests disrupted the Chinese-controlled city, with the protest movement facing a test of its stamina after more clashes with police and pro-Beijing opponents.
Civil servants began arriving for work at the main government offices of Hong Kong’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, which have been the focal point of protests that initially drew tens of thousands onto the streets. The bureaucrats were allowed to pass through protesters’ barricades unimpeded.
Numbers of protesters fell sharply overnight into the hundreds. The protesters remained at a stalemate with Leung’s pro-Beijing government and there was no sign of movement on talks that were proposed to end the stand-off.
The protests have ebbed and flowed over the past week, with people leaving the streets overnight to return later. The test on Monday will be whether that pattern continues in the face of the government’s determination to get Hong Kong back to work.
Fearing a crackdown after city leaders called for the streets to be cleared so businesses, schools and the civil service could resume on Monday, protesters who have paralysed parts of the former British colony with mass sit-ins pulled back from outside Leung’s office.
One civil servant, who gave her surname as Hung, said she had received notification she was to return to work as usual. “It’s much better than earlier,” she said.
Only about 100 protesters remained on the road leading into the Central business district but the road was still closed to traffic even though many had pulled back during the night. Heavy traffic was reported on other thoroughfares.
Over the past week, tens of thousands of protesters have demanded that Leung quit and that China allow them the right to vote for a leader of their choice in 2017 elections.
Facing separatist unrest in far-flung Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing is fearful that calls for democracy in Hong Kong could spread to the mainland. The Communist Party leadership has dismissed the Hong Kong protests as illegal but has so far left Leung’s government to find a solution.
The protest groups bowed to pressure from the government, businesses, shop owners and taxi drivers and said they would dismantle barricades barring the way to key government buildings and allow civil servants to get to work on Monday.
Some banks that had closed branches during the unrest of the past week also threw open their doors for business on Monday.
The protests have presented Beijing with one of its biggest political challenges since it crushed pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital in 1989.
In an echo of Tiananmen Square, activists in the main government district built a “Goddess of Democracy” statue out of wooden blocks near government headquarters.
The statue held a yellow umbrella, which has become the symbol of the Hong Kong protests after students used umbrellas to ward off pepper spray used by police a week ago.
DISCREPANCIES ON TALKS
While the government has vowed to clear the streets, the status of the talks remained unclear. Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK reported that student leaders met government officials at Hong Kong University late on Sunday but no clear resolutions emerged.
“It’s clear there is still discrepancy between the expectations from both parties towards the dialogue,” Lester Shum, vice secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, told a news conference late on Sunday.
“If the government resorts to clearing the site or using force, there will be no way for dialogue.”
Across Victoria Harbour in the gritty Mong Kok residential neighbourhood, protesters also pulled back from where scuffles had broken out at the weekend with supporters of the government, prompting police to use pepper sprays and batons again.
Hundreds more remained, disputing reports on social media that their leaders had called for them to leave.
“We want everyone to leave because we don’t want to see any more bloody conflicts … we will come back again if the government doesn’t respond (to calls for direct talks),” said Tang Sin-tung, a 16-year-old high school student.
Many residents have criticised ineffective police handling of the unrest in Mong Kok, a traditional stronghold of Hong Kong’s notorious organised crime gangs, or Triads. Police have defended their tactics and denied allegations of any collaboration between the security forces and gang members, some of whom were arrested after altercations with protesters.
“We’ve been pepper-sprayed. We’ve been tear-gassed. We’ve seen Triads. Now we’re not afraid of anything,” said Kit Lee, 41, who was among those remaining in the narrow streets of the neighbourhood, one of the most densely populated on the planet.
The protests have disrupted businesses and helped wipe close to US$50 billion off the value of shares on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Financial Secretary John Tsang wrote in a blog that Hong Kong was at a critical moment and its “financial foundations and core values have inevitably been shaken”.
Economists at Australian bank ANZ predicted the political deadlock would eventually hit business sentiment and consumer confidence in the city, which is also a gateway for many international investors to mainland China.