Both sides save face in Hong Kong as 'Umbrella' barricades come down

After a court order, students and city officials cooperated to unblock access to a skyscraper downtown. But whether the 'Umbrella Movement' will peacefully disperse all over Hong Kong is unclear.

Tyrone Siu/AP
Masked pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong on Tuesday moved barricades away from the CITIC Tower in accordance with a court injunction.

On the 51st day of Hong Kong’s so-called “Umbrella Movement," protesters and court officials, working separately and calmly, removed barricades that impeded access to a business tower with links to mainland China in what may be the first step toward a peaceful resolution of a student-led protest demanding full democracy for the autonomous territory.  

Today's action by no means solves the long-running protests, which continue at three different areas of prime shopping real estate in one of the world’s most expensive cities. But following an appeal from a popular former Hong Kong chief justice, Andrew Li, not to damage the rule of law, the moving of one barricade by students and the dismantling of another by court bailiffs signals the possibility of a non-violent outcome. 

The action follows a court injunction against the protesters by China International Trust and Investment Corporation – better known by its acronym, CITIC. The corporation argued that car access and egress to the gleaming white CITIC Tower in the city's Admiralty district was blocked by barriers. Those barriers, constructed of metal railings normally used by police for crowd control, were bound together with chains, wire, tape, and plastic straps and had come to represent the protest battle lines.

The CITIC skyscraper sits on a short divided road called Tim Mei Avenue and is near to the Hong Kong legislature or Legco, and the government main offices, which on the west side border the local headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army.

Shortly before 10 a.m. Tuesday, a lawyer for CITIC read out loud the court injunction informing the protesters that the offending barricades had to go. This they did several times. The students responded, eventually, by moving a series of metal railings to another location. But CITIC representatives argued that traffic was still impeded and the terms of the court order were not fulfilled.

At this point Albert Ho, a Democratic Party legislator and consultant to the protesters, argued that the court had failed to attach to its order a map indicating the precise areas to be cleared.

Bailiffs wearing black vests with the words "bailiff" and "judiciary" stitched in bright yellow began filtering into a crowd around the disputed barricade along with vest-clad officers dressed in otherwise casual clothes. There was a standoff between Mr. Ho and the CITIC lawyer who confronted each other on the street in front of journalists and photographers. Ho spoke in both Cantonese and English.

After an hour of debate a set of demonstrators – several covering their faces with cloth and surgical masks – picked up the railings and carried them to another location that obstructed traffic, but not cars going in and out of the CITIC tower.

Then, a group of bailiffs armed with bolt cutters and wire snips appeared and went to work on a second barricade. No protesters intervened and no jeering was heard as the bailiffs’ worked. They dismantled the two-tier mass of bound iron in about 30 minutes and opened a lane of traffic.

Student leader Joshua Wong said the demonstrators would proceed on the basis of non-violence and peace. "We are not looking for arguments with police," he told reporters, adding that if an area outside the car park was cleared, students would have no problem with it.

In coming days, new court orders that have either been obtained or are in the legal works, will be tested in Hong Kong. A key injunction covers the protest zone in gritty, working class Mongkok which sports more elaborately constructed barriers and a tougher set of protesters, including politically radical figures less convinced by the Hong Kong students’ willingness to engage in dialogue and compromise.

Protest leaders and analysts say the Umbrella Movement is far from over. But today's events suggest that students are reading recent public opinion polls showing that 70 percent of respondents now want the Occupy Central demonstrators to pack up their tent cities and go home.

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