HONG KONG/SINGAPORE – With Hong Kong’s student-led protests dwindling and rally leaders in talks to end their 12-day campaign, a small number of demonstrators are threatening to ignore any call to abandon their posts.
Pro-democracy protesters still on the streets of central Hong Kong increasingly don’t answer to the leaders from various student groups. As people drift back to school and jobs, those who remain pose a challenge to police under pressure to remove blockades and open roadways.
“These people come on their own, they make their own mind up, they don’t respond to anyone’s appeals,” said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at City University of Hong Kong and democracy advocate. “The police understand this very well,” he said, and know the protesters are “unpredictable.”
The resolve of some remaining demonstrators may complicate efforts to bring the standoff to a peaceful end. Any attempt to remove them by force risks backfiring, as police saw when the use of tear gas on Sept. 28 brought thousands more onto the streets. When gangs attacked demonstrators at the Mong Kok and Causeway Bay sites Friday, the protests swelled anew.
“After seeing what happened in Mong Kok, I decided to come here instead to protect other students,” chemistry student Meteor Yau, 19, said Monday. “For us in Mong Kok, we don’t belong to any leaders. We don’t have to listen to anyone.”
In Causeway Bay Monday afternoon a crowd of about 50 was occasionally heckled by passers-by, with protesters responding by singing “Happy Birthday” to drown out the shouts of critics. One demonstrator, Sunny Cheung, sat on a deck chair under a tent in the middle of a deserted street while watching a nearby barricade.
“Anybody can walk in and out, sit down and support us, that’s actually the meaning of our movement,” he said. Hong Kong Federation of Students Secretary-General “Alex Chow can tell us to rejoin them, and some of us might. But any decision will be taken to a vote among all present.”
Pressure has been mounting on the students to halt their campaign for the government in China to permit fully free elections in 2017. Academics such as Hong Kong Baptist University President Albert Chan, alongside both pro-democratic and pro-Beijing politicians, have called for an end to the demonstrations to avoid further violence.
After the first round of talks Sunday, protests thinned the following day to a few hundred between the three sites, before growing again in the evening. The city’s top official, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, whose resignation students have demanded, said at a briefing Monday that the government is sincere in its desire to negotiate.
A second session of talks between students and officials took place last night and a third round was scheduled for Tuesday. Government officials and student leaders were to discuss a location and topics for further, formal discussions, according to Lau Kong-wah, undersecretary for constitutional and mainland affairs.
Student leader Chow said by text message that he’s “not very optimistic” about the chances of the talks leading to a resolution.
“If they have proposal, they would have given out already,” Chow said in response to questions. The struggle over the elections will move to the legislature if talks fail and students may take further action, he said, while declining to disclose potential plans.
Talks so far have been “very, very good,” Lau told reporters last night. Both sides have agreed to hold a public meeting, Lau said.
That may mean little to Prince Tse, 28, who quit his job as a barista last month and has been at the Mong Kok site since Sept. 28. His group of 20 or so demonstrators were among those who braved the Friday attacks by gangs linked to Hong Kong organized crime groups and ignored calls by protest leaders to abandon the site for the safety of the Admiralty area. The student leaders don’t speak for him, Tse said.
“We don’t want to be hijacked by any party,” he said. “It is all initiated by us, and we own this place here. I wonder under what capacity the leaders in Admiralty would persuade us to move there.”
City University’s Cheng, one of the heads of the Alliance for True Democracy, a coalition of pan-democratic parties, said he endorses the protesters’ independence.
“Spontaneity is a beautiful thing, but it’s also a handicap,” he said.