Some Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, many in tears, began leaving the Mong Kok area of the city late on Sunday, pulling back from the scene of recent clashes with those who back the pro-Beijing government.
Fearing a police crackdown may come within hours, other protesters who have paralyzed 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 at the heart of the former British colony's government district.
Tens of thousands of protesters are demanding that Leung step 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 neighborhood 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 on Sunday.
"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 criticized the 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.
"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.
Growing public backlash
Facing a government deadline on Monday to clear the streets of protesters so that Hong Kong's schools, businesses and government offices can return to work, the protest groups have 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 Monday, but primary schools and kindergartens would remain closed.
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.
China's ruling Communist Party leadership in Beijing has dismissed the Hong Kong protests as illegal, but appears to have left it to 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 percent drop in the value of shares on the Hong Kong stock exchange in the past month.
Financial Secretary John Tsang wrote in a blog on Sunday that Hong Kong was at a critical moment and its "financial foundations and core values have inevitably been shaken."
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 businesses, particularly those paying high rents, were being hit. "If they carry on too long, you're asking for trouble," he told Reuters.
"At some point you need to open the roads. You're choking off the economy."
Protest leaders, who earlier pulled out of planned talks with the government because of the way the police handled Friday's unrest, held out the prospect of rejoining the dialogue if policing improved.
They also braced for a potential showdown with a government determined to get Hong Kong back to work on Monday.
"We must take care in the coming days. In the face of violence we must remain steadfast and brave. This is only the calm before the storm, but the Hong Kong people here with us ... proves our strength," Alex Chow, leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said over the weekend.
'Take a break'
China's state-run People's Daily said in a commentary on Sunday that there had been misunderstandings about the democratic process.
"This is not a struggle between democracy and non-democracy, but merely different understandings on the realization and implementation methods of democracy. In the final analysis, the central government is the most powerful supporter of democracy in Hong Kong," the newspaper said.
Facing separatist unrest in far-flung Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing is standing firm on Hong Kong, fearful that calls for democracy there could spread to the mainland.
Bao Tong, 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, he told Reuters he was worried that recent violence "could give people excuses."
"I don't believe the protesters will engage in violent activities, but no one can guarantee that others will not use violence against the demonstrators," he said.
"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."