Hong Kong protests thin as two sides agree to talk

Published 10:28 am Tuesday, October 7, 2014

HONG KONG — Crowds of protesters who filled Hong Kong’s streets with demands for more democracy thinned dramatically Tuesday after student leaders and the government agreed to hold talks in the increasingly frustrated city.

Just a few days after tens of thousands of demonstrators thronged the city’s streets, only a couple thousand protesters were scattered across the three main protest areas on Tuesday night. But the six-lane highway that cuts through the heart of Hong Kong’s business district remained blocked by demonstrators, once again snarling traffic and angering many commuters.

One young protester sleepily brushed his teeth as rush hour began, while a sleeping demonstrator leaned back in a nylon chair nearby, his mouth open and his eyeglasses askew.

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Despite the dwindling numbers of activists on the streets, protest leaders insisted the movement was far from defeated, and vowed to walk away from negotiations if the police used force to clear away the remaining demonstrators.

Michael Leung, 14, wearing his school uniform and doing homework on the highway, said he had come to the protest zone on three days after school.

“You see now the number of people is decreasing because there has been no big action from the government and the police,” he said. “But I think if the government or police want to clear this area, then the people will come out again.”

At the territory’s government headquarters, which had been blocked by protesters for a week, only a half dozen or so student protesters remained at the barricades. Eight policemen stood nearby, chatting among themselves.

On Tuesday night, a dozen policemen ringed a small group of pro-government demonstrators as they marched near the protesters.

“It is true democracy we’re looking for!” one of the demonstrators cried into portable loudspeaker, as the group shouted her down.

Lau Kong-wah, the territory’s undersecretary of constitutional affairs, said the government and students had set a date for a first meeting on Friday to discuss the details of political reform. He said the talks will be open to the public and that negotiations so far had “a good start.”

The dueling questions now are how long the demonstrators are willing to continue their protests — and how long until the government removes them.

“We are safe (from a crackdown) for the moment,” said Joseph Cheng, a specialist in Chinese politics at the City University of Hong Kong who has deep ties to the city’s pro-democracy movement. “Now that there are negotiations going on — or at least negotiations to discuss negotiations — we expect that the police will not clear the protesters for a few days.”

But with the authorities unlikely to agree to the protesters’ immediate demands, including the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, any talks could quickly collapse.

“The real test is what happens when the negotiations break down,” said Cheng.

Like many protest leaders, Cheng suspects the government is purposefully slowing discussions to drive a wedge between the activists and residents increasingly anxious for the protests to end.

People “are now beginning to say: ‘Hey, we want to make a living. You are disturbing my daily life,’” he said.

The protesters are demanding a wider say in the inaugural 2017 elections for Hong Kong’s top official, known as the chief executive, than China’s central government is willing to give them. Beijing, which controls Hong Kong but allows far more liberty here than on the mainland, insists that all candidates be screened by a committee of mostly pro-China tycoons and other elites, raising fears of a tightening grip by Communist leaders.