Hong Kong lawmakers pleaded for protesters to leave areas they’ve occupied for more than a week after the city’s top official set tomorrow as the deadline to open access to government offices barricaded by demonstrators.
Tens of thousands last night poured into the streets around Hong Kong’s government headquarters after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said civil servants must be able to return to work Monday and that authorities would take “any necessary action” to restore order.
By this morning, crowds in the Admiralty district had thinned to a few hundred. The number of protesters could swell again this evening as has been the pattern throughout the demonstrations.
Lawmakers including democrat Ronny Tong were joined by former Chief Justice Andrew Li, University of Hong Kong Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson and the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong in urging demonstrators to leave the streets so as to avoid violence.
The protesters, made up of several groups all seeking direct elections free from limits set by China’s central government, have paralyzed much of central Hong Kong for more than a week.
Benny Tai Yiu-ting, founder of the Occupy Central With Love and Peace group of protesters, called on the crowds last night to give way to Leung’s demands.
“If we can open a road to allow civil servants to get to work on Monday, Leung Chun-ying will have no excuse to clear us out,” Tai said in a speech to those gathered in Admiralty.
Joshua Wong, 17, the founder of the student activist group Scholarism, said 200,000 people gathered last night in Admiralty, which has become the protesters’ stronghold. That equals the numbers that attended the rallies’ Oct. 1 peak. No police estimates were available.
“They say we’re chaotic -- look around -- are we chaotic?” Wong said last night, addressing the crowd. “I see you all here and I know that what we’ve worked toward has not been for nothing.”
Protesters occupying streets in the Causeway Bay district of the city were cited today by the South China Morning Post as saying they had observed a larger police presence and were afraid the authorities were preparing to clear them out.
There were also reports of sporadic clashes between the protesters and those who criticize the demonstrations for hurting businesses and hampering traffic. Emergency crews set up a giant airbag beneath a bridge in the Admiralty protest zone where a man was demanding the protests be halted so his three children can return to school, according to RTHK.
In the city’s Mong Kok district, police formed a perimeter around an intersection occupied by protesters, setting up roadblocks and stopping those who tried to tear down signs posted by the demonstrators.
Hong Kong’s police force increased its presence in Mong Kok last night after protesters there were attacked Oct. 3 by groups of men. Police have arrested about two dozen people, including some with suspected ties to the city’s triad gangs.
In his televised address last night, Leung said the government “strongly condemns” the violence in Mong Kok. If “the incident develops further, it is very possible that the situation will continue to be out of control, harming public safety and social order,” he said.
Financial Secretary John Tsang said today that it was too early to assess the economic impact of the protests and that Hong Kong is able to handle the unrest in the short term.
Talks agreed to by both the protesters and the government on Oct. 2 were shelved by the students after the attacks in Mong Kok. Last night, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the groups leading the protests, raised the possibility of restarting them if the government opens an investigation into police conduct in Mong Kok.
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam said in a statement today that the door for dialog has always been open and that she was willing to talk with the students.
Protest leaders have accused the police of allowing organized violence against them. The city’s Secretary of Security Lai Tung-kwok called such claims “highly unreasonable and extremely unfair” and said the police would continue to act in a professional manner.
The protests were triggered by China’s decision that candidates for chief executive in the 2017 elections be vetted by a committee. Pro-democracy groups say that will guarantee the candidates’ obedience to China. They are seeking a more open system, as well as Leung’s resignation.
Hong Kong’s police have not used force to remove the protesters since an attempt on Sept. 28 to disperse crowds with tear gas and pepper spray. Live broadcasts of the events of that evening spurred support for the protesters and swelled their ranks.
Ho Fung, a second-year university student sitting in the middle of the road leading to the government headquarters, said last night he intended to remain peaceful if attacked.
“If I don’t sit here, then all our momentum will be gone,” said Ho, who was part of a group of four students sitting on stools and black garbage bags. “The police and the government will run the show again.”