SOME Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, many in tears, began leaving the Mong Kok area of the city last night, pulling back from the scene of recent clashes with those who back the pro-Beijing government.
Other protesters who have paralysed parts of the Asian financial hub with mass sit-ins also pulled back from outside Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s office, with police removing barricades nearby.
Amid confusing signals, reports circulated on social media and by word of mouth that protest leaders had called on their supporters to rally at Admiralty, the main area they have occupied over the past week.
Tens of thousands of protesters are demanding that Mr Leung steps down and that China allows them the right to vote for a leader of their choice in 2017 elections.
The pro-democracy camp mixed defiance with pragmatism in the cramped streets of Mong Kok, a gritty, working class neighbourhood where scuffles broke out between protesters and supporters of the government on Friday and Saturday – and where police used pepper spray and batons in sporadic clashes early yesterday morning.
“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 who said she represents some of the protest volunteers in Mong Kok.
She said around 20 of the 30 or so volunteers in that area would leave and join the rally at Admiralty, though some may choose to stay. Tang alleged that some female volunteers had been molested and faced sexual harassment by some of those opposed to the protest movement.
“We will be back. Fight till the end,” some of the protesters chanted. “Mong Kok, Mong Kok, never retreat,” shouted those remaining, cheered on by around 200 supporters.
Many residents have criticised the police handling of the recent unrest in Mong Kok, a traditional stronghold of Hong Kong’s notorious organised crime gangs, or Triads. Police have had to defend their tactics and denied allegations of any collaboration between the security forces and gang members.
“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 opting to stay in Mong Kok.
Facing a government deadline of this morning to clear the streets of protesters so that Hong Kong’s schools, businesses and government offices can return to work, the protest groups yesterday said they would dismantle barricades to key government buildings to allow civil servants to get to work.
Businesses, shop owners and taxi drivers have added to the pressure on the protesters to end their occupation and disperse.
The government said all secondary schools in Central, Western and Wan Chai districts would re-open on this morning, but primary schools and kindergartens would remain closed.
China’s ruling Communist Party leadership in Beijing has dismissed the Hong Kong protests as illegal, but appears to have left it to Mr Leung and his government to find a solution. As the protests have ebbed and flowed, they have caused uncertainty for businesses and triggered a more than 7 per cent drop in the value of shares on the Hong Kong stock exchange in the past month.