Hong Kong protesters remain on streets as ‘deadline day’ arrives
HONG KONG (CNN) — Authorities and pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong remain at loggerheads as protests continued into Monday, the day the government has set as a deadline to clear the streets.
Both sides say they are open to talks, but each wants concessions from the other.
The protesters, many of them students, have blocked major highways in several key districts for the past week, challenging a decision by Beijing about how elections will work in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
Hong Kong’s top leader, Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, has called on the demonstrators to disperse by Monday so that classes can resume at schools and government employees can go back to work at offices surrounded by protesters.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students said at a press conference it had met with three representatives of the government to try to pave the way for future talks with Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, the territory’s second in command, to potentially defuse the crisis.
Lester Shum, the deputy secretary general for the students’ federation, told reporters that the two sides had failed to reach an agreement, but had agreed to continue the dialogue, which both parties said would be direct and mutually respectful.
He said the students laid out three conditions for future talks: that the dialogue must be ongoing, that the student leaders must be treated as equals, and that real political change must emerge from the talks.
He said the student protesters would continue the protest until they had a productive dialogue.
Addressing crowds at the protests, the federation’s secretary general, Alex Chow, repeatedly called on protesters to “add oil” — a phrase meaning “keep it up” — as he urged the movement to continue.
The federation also said in a statement that the government needed to take violence against the protesters seriously, and refrain from forcefully clearing the sites — or the occupation would “certainly continue.”
There was confusion early evening as to whether protesters would leave two major protest locations to consolidate their efforts at the main demonstration site in the city’s Admiralty district.
The protest group Occupy Central with Love and Peace said on its Twitter account that demonstrators had decided to withdraw from outside the chief executive’s office, a key point of tension with authorities.
But after the tweet was sent, crowd numbers at the site grew rapidly, according to CNN staff present, with protesters yelling that it was false information that they were leaving.
Occupy Central also said that demonstrators at the Mong Kok protest site, where clashes have taken place with opponents of the movement, would relocate to the main protest site on a multilane highway near the government headquarters in Admiralty.
But other protesters did not want to comply with Occupy’s announcement. They sat on the ground, and barricades were not moved.
Gary Yuen, 30, who has been at the Mong Kok site since the protests started, told CNN that less than 20 people had relocated to Admiralty.
“Today there are lots of supporters,” he said. “You can see we all want to stay.”
Chow, of the students’ federation, told Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK it was up to individual protesters to decide if they would remain at the Mong Kok protest, but those who decided to stay should take care for their safety.
Clashes in busy area
Dozens of people were injured as scuffles broke out Friday and Saturday at the protest site in Mong Kok, a tightly packed district of shops and residences surrounding one of the city’s busiest intersections.
Hong Kong government figures show that 165 people — 120 male and 45 female — have been injured since the protests started last week.
Students and other protesters have accused police of failing to protect them from attacks by people who want an end to the demonstrations.
Police have rejected the accusations, calling them “totally unfounded and extremely unfair to police officers who faithfully and diligently performed their duty at the scene.”
At least 30 people have been arrested since Friday, police said, adding that at least eight were believed to have links to organized crime groups, known as triads.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on Leung to “urgently assure the public of their rights to peaceful assembly and expression” ahead of his deadline to clear the streets.
“C.Y. Leung needs to act urgently or confidence in the Hong Kong government’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law will be deeply compromised,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.
Access to government building in dispute
The protesters broke off planned talks with Leung’s second-in-command, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, because of the violence.
“The precondition for opening the dialogue between students and the government is that police should properly handle the clashes between pro-occupation protesters and opposing citizens,” the Hong Kong Federation of Students said in a statement Sunday.
“If the second point is confirmed, students are willing to re-open dialogue with the government right away,” the statement said.
The students disputed the government’s assertion that government workers can’t access the headquarters.
“The passage to the government headquarters has always been kept open, the 3000 civil servants can enter into the building,” the student federation said. “The Administration’s Office can ask the employees to return to their workplace, the government should not continue to confuse and mislead people.”
The government issued its own statement saying “the door to dialogue is always open” if the students are willing.
It also said it hoped the protesters would open up a footbridge and several roads around the government building.
University official urges protesters to leave
A senior official at one of the city’s top universities called on students to leave the protest areas immediately, saying he feared for their well-being.
“I am making this appeal from my heart because I genuinely believe that if you stay, there is a risk to your safety,” Peter Mathieson, president and vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University, said in a message to students early Sunday. “Please leave now: you owe it to your loved ones to put your safety above all other considerations.”
Demonstrators are upset with a decision this summer by China’s ruling Communist Party to let a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists choose who can run as a candidate for the chief executive role in the 2017 election.
A new electoral system will, for the first time, let the city’s 5 million eligible voters pick a winner rather than the largely pro-Beijing committee of 1,200 members that has chosen past leaders. But critics argue that the right to vote is pointless if the candidates are handpicked by Beijing.
They complain the Chinese government is encroaching too heavily on the affairs of Hong Kong, which has been governed according to the “one country, two systems” policy since Britain handed it back to China in 1997.
Support for the protest swelled last Sunday, when police used tear gas and pepper spray in a failed effort to disperse demonstrators. The use of such heavy-handed tactics shocked many residents in Hong Kong, where protests usually unfold peacefully.
The Chinese and Hong Kong governments have declared the demonstrations illegal. Beijing has heavily restricted the flow of information on the Chinese mainland about the protest movement.
CNN’s Anjali Tsui, Wilfred Chan and translator Daisy Ng contributed to this report.
By Jethro Mullen, Tim Hume and Elizabeth Joseph