Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Hong Kong civil servants return to work as pro-democracy protests thin

In apparent concession, activists allow government workers to return to work – averting a police confrontation

Hong Kong civil servants returned to work at the government's headquarters Monday, as pro-democracy protests subsided ahead of a deadline to disperse.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying insisted late last week that government offices reopen on Monday so some 3,000 civil servants could return to work or the government would "take all necessary actions to restore social order."

As dawn broke, a cluster of protesters at the entrance to Hong Kong’s government building complex arranged a narrow walkway for civil servants to access their offices.

"I'm happy the protesters opened the barriers today," said a civil servant as she pushed through the path. "I need to work."

The partial withdrawal was part of a strategy to regroup in another part of town, organizers said. 

The pro-democracy protesters feared that officials would clear the streets by force, but it appeared the government was settling for a partial victory with the opening of government offices and clearing of some roads. One main road on Hong Kong Island remained partly closed, and the government warned some disruptions were likely to continue.

"To restore order, we are determined, and we are confident we have the capability to take any necessary action," police spokesman Steve Hui said. "There should not be any unreasonable, unnecessary obstruction by any members of the public."

Television footage showed a man shaking hands with a police officer outside government headquarters and the two sides removing some barricades together. About 300 demonstrators stood by outside the government building's main entrance, but then many sat back down and refused to leave.

"I'm against any kind of withdrawal or tendency to surrender," said Do Chan, a protester in his 30s. "I think withdrawing — I mean shaking hands with the police — is a very ugly gesture of surrender."

Tens of thousands of protesters are demanding that Leung step down after police lobbed tear gas canisters at protesters a week ago. The demonstrators’ chief demand is that China allow them the right to vote for a leader in 2017 elections without vetting by Beijing.

The protesters insisted that their movement was not losing steam after a week of protests, some of which turned violent. 

The numbers of protesters fell sharply overnight into the hundreds, after drawing tens of thousands over the course of a week. The protesters remained at a stalemate with Leung's pro-Beijing government, and there was no sign of movement on talks that were proposed to end the standoff, although Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK reported that student leaders met with government officials last Sunday.

"It's clear there is still discrepancy between the expectations from both parties towards the dialogue," Lester Shum, vice secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, told a news conference late on Sunday.

Alex Chow, another student leader, was not worried about the crowd dwindling, he said, "because people need rest, but they will come out again. It doesn't mean the movement is diminishing. Many people still support it."

But there was an air of exhaustion among the mostly young protesters at government headquarters on Monday morning, with many relieved the police did not use force to clear them from the area.

The protesters erected a statue of a man wielding an umbrella — which became the symbol of the pro-democracy movement when protesters used umbrellas as shields against police pepper spray. The statue alludes to the "Goddess of Democracy" statue erected in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

In Mong Kok, another key protest area, some Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters began pulling back on Sunday night from the scene of recent clashes with those who back the pro-Beijing government.

Hundreds remained, disputing reports on social media that their leaders had called for them to leave, and the situation remained volatile. 

The pro-democracy camp mixed defiance with pragmatism in the cramped streets of Mong Kok, a shopping district 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.

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. One Hong Kong daily newspaper, the South China Morning Post (SCMP), reported that of the 19 pro-Beijing counterprotesters arrested by police, eight had known Triad connections.

The Hong Kong police have made 37 arrests and received 275 complaints since Occupy Central began on Sept. 28, police spokesman Hui Chun-tak told the SCMP. Most complaints involved accusations the police had failed to perform their duty and abused their power, he said.

"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.

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 reopen 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.

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.

Al Jazeera and wire service

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