HONG KONG (Reuters) - Pro-democracy protesters remained in a tense stalemate with the Hong Kong government late on Sunday after authorities warned they were determined to get the Asian financial hub back to work after more than a week of unrest.
Some protesters left the Mong Kok area of the city, pulling back from the scene of recent clashes with those who back the pro-Beijing government. But many hundreds more remained, disputing reports on social media that their leaders had called for them to leave.
“We’re afraid there may be a police crackdown, so we came here to support. The more people we have, the harder it is for the police to clear,” said Lester Leung, 25, who said he was ready to stay on the streets all night.
Fearing a crackdown as city leaders have called for the streets to be cleared so businesses, schools and civil servants could resume on Monday, other protesters who have paralyzed parts of the former British colony with mass sit-ins also pulled back from outside Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s office.
By late Sunday evening, Reuters reporters estimated around 4,000 protesters had gathered in Admiralty, the main area they have occupied over the past week at the heart of the government district - far fewer than rallied there the previous day.
Over the past week, tens of thousands of protesters have demanded that Leung step down 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 protests as illegal, but appears to have left it to Leung and his government to find a solution.
In Mong Kok, a gritty, working class neighborhood where scuffles broke out between protesters and supporters of the government over the weekend, prompting police to use pepper spray and batons, some in the pro-democracy camp mixed defiance with pragmatism.
“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.
While some packed up and left, several hundred supporters stood their ground, shouting “Mong Kok, Mong Kok, never retreat,” watched by as many police.
Many residents have criticized ineffective police handling of the recent unrest in Mong Kok, a traditional stronghold of Hong Kong’s notorious organized crime gangs, or Triads. Police have had to defend 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 neighborhood, one of the most densely populated on the planet.
Under pressure from the government, and from businesses, shop owners and taxi drivers, the protest groups had said they would dismantle barricades to key government buildings to allow civil servants to get to work on Monday.
The student activists, established protest groups and many ordinary Hong Kong residents present Beijing with one of its biggest political challenges since it crushed pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989.
But they remained defiant in saying they would not call off their action. At a news conference late on Sunday, student leaders said there was no agreement yet with government officials for any future dialogue to try and end the deadlock.
“It’s clear there is still discrepancy between the expectations from both parties towards the dialogue,” said Lester Shum, vice secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Students. “If the government resorts to clearing the site or using force, there will be no way for dialogue.”
The protests have disrupted local 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 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.
“The impact of Occupy Central is not confined to tourist spending. The slowdown of China has already affected the city’s growth momentum. If the protests continue ... Hong Kong’s fourth-quarter outlook will increasingly turn gloomy,” they wrote in a research note.
Businessman Allan Zeman, a member of the 1,200-strong committee that selects candidates for Hong Kong’s top job, said the protesters had made their point, but “at some point you need to open the roads. You’re choking off the economy.”
Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s former top civil servant under both British and Chinese rule, wrote in the UK’s Guardian newspaper that Leung and his team “have little credibility left and will find it increasingly difficult to govern Hong Kong.”
“I understand mainland Chinese fears. But if they are allowed to walk away from their commitments under an international treaty, then it doesn’t say very much for China’s commitment to the rest of the world,” she added.
And the most senior Chinese official jailed over the 1989 Tiananmen protests said today’s demonstrators in Hong Kong should “take a break”.
In a phone interview, Bao Tong told Reuters he was worried the violence “could give people excuses.”
“The most important thing is for tomorrow. This problem cannot be solved now. What (they) really want now is universal suffrage. That is not an easy matter.”
“As for the goals that have not been achieved, they need further persistence, tenacity and adherence - so that’s why they should rest now.”
Additional reporting by John Ruwitch, Twinnie Siu, Elzio Barreto, Charlie Zhu, Alexandra Harney, Clare Baldwin, Joseph Campbell, Donny Kwok, James Pomfret, Bobby Yip, Irene Jay Liu, Farah Master, Diana Chan, Kinling Lo and Venus Wu in HONG KONG, and Sui-Lee Wee in BEIJING; Writing by Ian Geoghegan and Anne Marie Roantree Editing by Kim Coghill