One week after students started occupying public spaces in three points across Hong Kong, some protest groups agreed Sunday to give up some of their ground, but hundreds of rank-and-file occupiers refused to comply.
Protest leaders hoped occupiers would abandon a protest site in the gang territory of Mong Kok, on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, to consolidate with protesters who have occupied plazas and streets near the government complex in Admiralty. But many Mong Kok protesters either didn’t believe the call to retreat, or took issue with the strategy.
“Mong Kok is totally different than Admiralty,” said Kelvin Cheung, 23, a supporter of the students camped along Nathan Avenue in Mong Kog.
“We think it is wrong to give up this place just because the government allowed the Triads to cause trouble here,” added Cheung, referring to the gangs thought to have caused a melee Friday in Mong Kok.
The anti-authoritarian nature of these protests has propelled thousands of Hong Kong residents, most of them young, to take to the street in mass defiance of Beijing and the city’s local government. But it also made it harder for student leaders and their supporters to persuade street activists to retreat and consolidate elsewhere, if only for their own safety.
Some student leaders were convinced that police would use potentially deadly force early Monday if steps were not taken to reopen some thoroughfares to traffic before the morning rush hour. After taking a vote, a core group of occupiers reportedly voted to retreat from Mong Kok, on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, where crowds of angry men started attacking protesters Friday, demanding that streets be reopened.
Despite that vote, some protesters refused to leave the site and hundreds remained there early Monday. There was similar defiance to a call by student leaders to end a human blockade in front of the offices of Hong Kong’s chief executive late Sunday.
A day prior, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying went on TV to warn that police have been tasked to uproot the protesters 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,” said Leung, whose resignation has been sought by protest leaders.
Yet police took no action to roust the protestors by 6 a.m. Monday, either at Mong Kog or other protest sites, meaning that traffic would remain disrupted as rush hour starts. It is not known why Leung did not deliver on his ultimatum.
Leung’s comments also did little to dampen turnout Saturday night at a mass demonstration in the downtown area of Admiralty, where protesters have blockaded his office and other government buildings. It was one of the largest mass demonstrations yet during this tumultuous week, with tens of thousands gathering to hear speeches and support what has been called the “umbrella movement.”
The turnout showed that the students still have strong popular support in Hong Kong. But many residents are frustrated about disruptions to transportation and commerce. Those frustrations could grow as commuters return to work Monday following a holiday week.
Students leaders offered last week to enter into talks to end the protests, but only with Carrie Lam, Leung’s number two. They then shelved the talks following Friday’s violence in Mong Kok and a perceived lack of response by police against the attackers.
On Sunday, the Hong Kong government offered to reopen talks if barricades were removed. A top official, Executive Councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, also said in an television interview that the government and police would be willing to investigate how the police handled clashes in Mong Kok and elsewhere. That’s been a demand of a leading protest group, the Hong Kong Federation of Students.
“For the sake of the government and police’s credibility, I believe they will handle the matter in a fair manner,” Ip reportedly said, according to a translation provided by the South China Morning Post.
Pro-democracy groups seem divided on whether they should engage in concessions before talks start, or only afterward. Each day, the pressure grows on them to make concessions in the interest of protecting their own.
On Sunday, the president of the University of Hong Kong made an impassioned plea for protesters to protect themselves.
“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 in a statement. “Please leave now: You owe it to your loved ones to put your safety above all other considerations.”
In Hong Kong and internationally, there is wide debate on whether the core protesters understand the risks of defying the Hong Kong government, which reports to the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, a leading China expert warned that Hong Kong’s protesters may be tempting the same response that the CCP unleashed against students in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
“For the demonstrators themselves, there is a danger,” wrote Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. “They can become too intoxicated by a feeling of invincibility, of marching in history’s current, especially once their movement gathers sufficient force to occupy a highly symbolic seat of power like Central in Hong Kong…”
Here in Hong Kong, not all observers think the students are unaware of the risks they are taking. Francis Moriarty, a longtime Hong Kong journalist and commentator, said the students are anything but naive.
“I think that is paternalistic nonsense,” Moriarty said in an interview Sunday. “They know what they are doing. They are ready for the consequences. These are educated students. They know about what happened in 1989.”
Moriarty said it is reasonable to ask whether students are making wise decisions by continuing to occupy protest sites. In urging students to retreat, he said, community leaders should also insist that police avoid excessive force in removing them.