Challenges to the week-old pro-democracy demonstrations in the streets of Hong Kong dubbed “Occupy Central” mounted Friday, with hundreds of pro-Beijing supporters and older residents of Hong Kong clashing with the youthful protesters, who are mostly led by university students.
A day after a midnight deadline came and went for Hong Kong’s top official, Leung Chun-ying, to meet the protesters’ demand that he step down, police linked arms in an attempt to keep the two sides apart amid signs of cracks in popular support for the protesters.
The demonstrators took to the streets to protest an electoral reform program in Hong Kong in which China was insisting that it vet candidates for chief executive elections in 2017. Beijing has shown no sign of giving in to the protesters’ demands, and has dismissed the weeklong street occupation as illegal. The protests are the most contentious since the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.
In a press conference late Thursday, Mr. Leung refused to resign, warning the protesters of consequences should they occupy government offices but pledging that Hong Kong police would adopt an approach of “maximum tolerance.” He said his deputy, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, would meet student leaders soon to discuss the electoral reform program.
With residents of Hong Kong returning to work Friday after a two-day holiday, the street struggles were also taking on the appearance of a clash between generations, as the Associated Press reported that “visibly older people” were “shoving and at times trying to drag younger protesters away.”
The violent scuffles Friday followed days of mostly peaceful and polite protests since Sunday, when police sought to break up the demonstrations with baton charges, pepper spray, and tear gas.
According to Reuters, some 1,000 Beijing supporters in the bustling Mong Kok district, which is popular with tourists from the mainland, clashed Friday with about 100 protesters.
Some demonstrators held umbrellas for police in the rain while Beijing supporters shouted at police for failing to clear the demonstrators.
"We are all fed up and our lives are affected," said teacher Victor Ma. "You don't hold Hong Kong citizens hostage because it's not going to work. That's why the crowd is very angry here."
"I need to go to work. I'm a cleaner. Why do you have to block me from going to work?" said one woman as she quarreled with protesters. "You don't need to earn a living but I do."
Winnie, a store manager in her mid-30s, expressed support for the "Occupy Central" movement, but had her livelihood to worry about. "I'm very worried, of course. Our business is so bad. We may lose our bonuses," she said. Her salary is partly based on store sales.
Trade, she added, had picked up in the last two days as the protests remained largely calm following violent clashes last weekend, but they were still only about half normal levels.
"I hope the government could respond as soon as possible, otherwise I don't really know what to do."
Many students came to protest out of concern for their long term prospects and that of Hong Kong and its identity and government -- as mainland China exerts ever more influence after the British handed over its former colony. But for the protesters, there are also immediate consequences to consider.
According to Peter Ford, The Christian Science Monitor's correspondent in Hong Kong, direct confrontations with the police and arrests can give students a record, and this is a major constraint for many protesters.
“I’m considering my future and my prospects,” says Keith So, a student surveyor. “If I climbed over the wall and entered (Leung’s) office I would be jailed, and then the government or a big company wouldn’t consider my job application.”
“I understand why they want to escalate the action, but I wouldn’t go to the front myself,” adds Allen Yu. “I’m still studying and my family is putting pressure on me.”
Unspoken was another major concern for many students here: a criminal record – which a protester would risk by breaking into government property – makes it a great deal harder to obtain visas for foreign travel.
With no sign that the Chinese government is prepared to withdraw its plan for the 2017 chief executive elections, some demonstrators questioned Thursday how much longer their movement could maintain its momentum.
“I don’t think this whole thing will go on much beyond the weekend,” says Vanessa Li, a student at Hong Kong Baptist University who has been boycotting her classes for the past week. “But when we go back to our universities we’ll keep fighting, just in different ways.”