Hong Kong protest leaders have agreed to hold talks with the pro-Beijing government as their numbers dwindled and they faced growing pressure to end their sit-in.
On Tuesday morning, only a hundred or so protesters remained in the
central business district, significantly down from the tens of thousands that massed over the weekend.
Hong Kong's embattled leader Leung Chun-ying insisted late last week that government offices reopen on Monday so some 3,000 civil servants could return to work or, he warned, the government would "take all necessary actions to restore social order."
Many heeded the call but several hundred weary demonstrators remained at the main site in downtown Admiralty on Monday night, with similar numbers across the harbor in Mong Kok.
Late on Monday student leaders held a second round of "preparatory talks" with a government representative, agreeing to move towards formal negotiations.
Over the past week, the protesters have demanded that Leung, the Hong Kong's leader appointed by Beijing, quit and that China allow resident of Hong Kong the right to vote for a leader of their choice in 2017 elections. China wants to screen the candidates first so voters would chose among hand-picked options.
Ray Lau, undersecretary of constitutional and mainland affairs, said: "We hope there will be mutual respect shown during the meeting. We hope we can hold it this week."
The meeting resulted in three key principles, Bloomberg reported. There will be several rounds of talks, they will be held on equal footing, and the government must confirm and implements the outcome of the negotiations. Both sides said they hope the talks will begin before October 12.
Student leaders said the protests would continue as the dialogue with the government progressed, with Joshua Wong — a 17-year-old firebrand who has become one of the faces of the protest movement — issuing a rallying cry in Admiralty for demonstrators to continue occupying the business district.
The protesters are demanding free and open elections to select 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 critics dismiss as "fake democracy".
Student leaders denied their campaign for free elections had lost momentum, and commentators such as Peter Lee writing in the Asia Times suggested it has reached another stage.
Next Media Ltd. Chairman Jimmy Lai, publisher of the Hong Kong newspaper that’s most critical of Chinese rule and an advocate of the protesters, said in an interview, “I’m sure the government in the talks will promise something that will appease people temporarily. But when promises are broken, people will come back.”
But Leung issued another warning to disperse, saying they should leave the flashpoint district of Mong Kok "as soon as possible."
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.
"To prevent violent crime and to reduce the amount of injuries, police will take action at the right time," Leung said in a televised address.
The protesters and their well-organized campaign have enjoyed public support, with sympathy soaring after police used tear gas on the crowds. But after shutting down parts of the city for more than a week, irritation has grown.
However, secondary schools closures in Central, Western, Wan Chai, which had been a particular headache for families, were lifted Monday and the government said primary schools would reopen on Tuesday.
Al Jazeera and wire services
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