Clashes broke out Friday as Hong Kong residents and pro-Beijing counterprotesters tried to force democracy activists from the streets they have been occupying, reviving the possibility that the weeklong standoff could turn violent.
The scuffles in Hong Kong’s crowded Mong Kok district were the most chaotic since police used tear gas and pepper spray Sunday in an unsuccessful attempt to disperse demonstrators who have been pressing for greater electoral reforms in Hong Kong, which enjoys greater freedoms than the rest of China under a special arrangement with Beijing. Mong Kok is a working-class area far from the main protest site near central Hong Kong close to the territory's government headquarters.
Police were hard-pressed to keep order there on Friday as the two sides tussled in a tense standoff, with mostly older residents and Beijing supporters yelling at the mainly younger protesters, shoving them and occasionally trying to drag them away.
Police formed cordons and escorted some of the protesters away as hundreds chanted "Go home!"
The democracy activists linked arms and held hands as they tried to stand their ground against the much-larger crowd. At one point police brought in a stretcher to take away a young man, although it was unclear why.
Police themselves were also linking arms in an attempt to keep the residents and Beijing supporters from pushing into their ranks. The protesters and many onlookers were filming the confrontations; one man tried to grab a video camera from a demonstrator's hand.
"I would like to appeal to members of the public that they should observe the laws of Hong Kong when they are expressing their views," police spokesman Steve Hui said when asked about the confrontation in Mong Kok.
The end of a two-day holiday on Friday did reduce the numbers of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying made an apparent concession by offering talks, even as Beijing restated its resolute opposition to the protests and a completely free vote in Hong Kong.
“For a few consecutive days, some people have been making trouble in Hong Kong, stirring up illegal assemblies in the name of seeking 'real universal suffrage,” China's official People's Daily said in a front-page commentary on Friday. “Such acts have outrightly violated the Basic Law, Hong Kong's law, as well as the principle of the rule of law, and they are doomed to fail.”
At a Thursday news conference held just minutes before the midnight deadline set by protesters, Leung refused to bow to their ultimatum to resign and repeated police warnings of serious consequences should they try to block or occupy government buildings.
However, he said Chief Secretary Carrie Lam would meet students to discuss political reforms, and even though he gave no timeframe, the decision seemed to defuse the situation slightly.
"I hope both sides will be satisfied," she said. "Students had wanted a public meeting, but I hope that we can have some flexibility to discuss details."
The Hong Kong Federation of Students said in a statement early Friday that they planned to join the talks with the government, focused specifically on political reforms. They reiterated that Leung step down, saying he "had lost his integrity."
One of the leaders of the broader Occupy Central democracy group, which started a long-threatened plan to paralyze the city's downtown core by joining the student demonstration, also welcomed the talks, but insisted that Leung quit.
"This could be an opportunity to solve the plight we are facing," said Benny Tai.
When negotiating the handover of Hong Kong from Britain, China's ruling Communist leaders agreed to a "one country, two systems" that would preserve Western-style civil liberties and broad autonomy, while promising eventual democracy.
Beijing, however, decreed on Aug. 31 it would vet candidates who want to run for chief executive at an election in 2017, angering democracy activists who took to the streets. And what many residents saw as an excessive use of force against protesters last Saturday galvanized wider support for them.
China's government has been largely silent on the protests, other than to call them illegal and to voice support for the Hong Kong government's efforts to disperse them. The People's Daily, however, has published lengthy commentaries on the protests.
On Friday, it said a small group of protesters were attempting "hijack" the system and force changes to the electoral rules to benefit a minority of people. "The core of their efforts to gain so-called universal suffrage is to ensure that their representatives, including those who confront the central government, can become candidates for chief executive."
It said there was "no room for concessions" on the candidate screening issue. It pointed out that Hong Kong "is directly under the jurisdiction of the central government; it is not a country or an independent political entity."
Given that, it was unclear what kind of compromise the talks might achieve, though they might be part of a strategy to dampen the momentum of the protesters.