Hong Kong police cleared protest barricades and opened roads in the Mong Kok district hours after student leaders agreed to talks with the government aimed at ending three weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations.
Police faced limited resistance when they moved in to clear blocked roads in one of the world’s most densely populated neighborhoods, removing barricades, shrines and tents. The southbound lane of Nathan Road, a main thoroughfare through the bustling shopping district, remains blocked with dozens of protesters refusing to leave and others trying to reclaim cleared space.
“I am staying here to protect those still staying behind,” said Candy Chan, 38, who trades used appliances and electronics, and has been occupying the Mong Kok site since Sept. 29. “I want to fight for my children. I want them to have true democracy. I am getting old so it doesn’t matter to me.”
The move came after a flurry of activity yesterday that raised hopes for a negotiated end to the biggest political upheaval since China regain sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997. Student leaders last night accepted an offer from Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to begin negotiations on the city’s new electoral system, though he dismissed their demand that China permit voters to freely choose candidates for Leung’s successor in 2017.
China’s decision that candidates had to be vetted by a committee triggered the protests, which swelled to as many as 200,000 people at their peak, according to organizers. Crowds have since dwindled to hundreds on most days.
In announcing his offer for talks yesterday, Leung said the police would continue actions to end the blockades that still disrupt transport and commerce in the one of the world’s biggest financial centers.
“Dialogue and clearing protesters are two different issues,” he said at a press conference yesterday. “We won’t stop clearing protesters because we are having dialogue. We won’t stop having dialogue because we are clearing the sites.”
Students have yet to signal whether the clearing of Mong Kok would affect their decision to enter into talks, though some protesters have welcomed the restart of dialogue.
“We need to talk and someone has to be at the bargaining table, be it the students or someone else,” said Andy Fong, who’s seeking to reclaim the cleared space in Mong Kok. “I won’t stay if the police is clearing out the protesters. I don’t want to be arrested.”
The police have cleared roads at Admiralty and Causeway Bay, the other two districts protesters have occupied, earlier this week. They have said they aren’t removing demonstrators.
Alex Chow, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, told reporters late yesterday that while protesters are willing to negotiate, they will continue occupying parts of the city.
“We are willing to talk but the government of C.Y. Leung should not say they want to talk and also clear the sites,” Chow said. “I don’t know what trick the government plans to use, but we are not afraid and will keep fighting for democracy.”
Pro-democracy demonstrators stand behind umbrellas during a protest in the Admiralty area of Hong Kong, China, on Oct. 14, 2014.
The government was working on three fronts -- starting a dialogue with the students, clearing the streets and preparing for further consultations on Hong Kong’s electoral process, Leung said yesterday.
Talks with students will not consider the possibility that voters in the first-ever popular election for chief executive will be able to freely choose candidates. He said such a change would violate the Basic Law, the city’s de-facto constitution, and that China’s decision on the matter was final.
Pro-democracy movement supporters question the point of talks after the protesters’ most fundamental demand was taken off the table.
There’s no meaning to the talks unless “there is some concession from the central government or the Hong Kong government,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Labour Party, which supports the students.
The Standing Committee of China’s legislature ruled in August that the candidates for the Hong Kong’s 2017 election would have to be screened by a 1,200 member nominating committee. Pro-democracy forces say the mechanism will guarantee a leader loyal to the government in Beijing.
That ruling and Leung’s backing for the decision triggered the protests that began on Sept. 26 and spread to huge swathes of the city after police used tear gas on demonstrators two days later, sparking public outrage and broadening support for the students.
Leung’s new attempt at talks came in the wake of renewed public anger over the alleged beating of a protester by police on Oct. 15 that led the ranks of the demonstrations to swell anew. Officers involved in the incident were suspended yesterday.