HONG KONG: Hong Kong civil servants returned to work at the government’s headquarters on Monday as pro-democracy protests which have paralysed the area for more than a week subsided in the face of a deadline to disperse.
Although numbers dwindled dramatically at the city’s main protest sites, many said they would return later in the day to resume their campaign for free elections, which has seen tens of thousands of people pour onto the streets.
The government was forced to shut its headquarters on Friday — leaving 3,000 civil servants at home — because of the massed ranks of protesters blocking the access roads.
Hong Kong’s embattled leader Leung Chun-ying had insisted the offices must reopen on Monday, warning he would “take all necessary actions to restore social order”.
In fear of a repeat of ugly scenes a week ago when police unleashed tear gas on the crowds, many departed, leaving a committed core of about a thousand who waged a vigil through the night.
As dawn broke, a knot of protesters partially blocked the entrance to the complex with barricades, but kept a narrow section open to allow workers to pass through.
“I’m happy the protesters opened the barriers today,” one female civil servant said as she pushed through. “I need to work!”
The activists insisted their campaign was not losing steam after a week-long standoff that has at times erupted into violence.
“We’re going to be here until we get a response from the government,” said 20-year-old student Jurkin Wong who was sitting with friends as they woke from fitful slumber on the streets. “We have to stay here. It’s for our future.”
“I’ll go home to have a rest and them come back here to continue the protest,” said Thomas Chan, 20.
Two legislative meetings at the government offices were cancelled Monday but a government spokeswoman could not immediately give a reason.
The protesters are demanding the right to nominate who can run for election as the former British colony’s next leader in 2017. China’s Communist authorities insist only pre-approved candidates will be able to run, a system activists dismiss as “fake democracy”.
Handed back to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong is governed under a “one countries, two systems” deal that guarantees civil liberties not seen on the mainland, including freedom of speech and the right to protest.
But tensions have been rising over fears that these freedoms are being eroded, as well as rocketing inequality in the Asian financial hub.
There was an air of exhaustion among the largely youthful crowds outside government headquarters early Monday, with many relieved the police had not used force to clear them from the massive highway they have brought to a standstill.
A striking statue of a man defiantly wielding an umbrella — which has become a symbol of the democracy movement — was put up at the site in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district to loud cheers.
But at a second protest site across the harbour in the packed shopping district of Mong Kok, some demonstrators were in fighting mood overnight.
“We are not going to leave before we get what we want — even if they shoot us with rubber bullets,” said Oscar Ng, who wore a bicycle helmet on his head and a mask to protect his face.
The Mong Kok protest has been the scene of ugly clashes in recent days, with demonstrators angrily accusing police of bringing in hired thugs from triad criminal gangs to stir up trouble — a claim authorities have strongly denied.
There were hopes of a breakthrough on Sunday when student leader Lester Shum met with mid-ranking officials with the aim of setting conditions for a meeting with Leung’s deputy Carrie Lam. However, no agreement was announced.
Students have been at the vanguard of the so-called “umbrella revolution”, and the government offered the talks last week in a bid to end an impasse that has wreaked havoc with the city’s transport system and taken a heavy toll on businesses.