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Student protesters in Hong Kong began pulling back from their positions blocking government headquarters Sunday, in an apparent compromise with authorities who had pledged to clear the streets by the start of the workweek.
But how far this concession will go in defusing the protests is unclear. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have staged protests for over a week calling for the city’s pro-Beijing leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, to step down, and for the right to vote for a leader of their choosing in 2017 elections. China has insisted on vetting candidates for the election. The decentralized nature of the protests could mean today’s conciliation with police may not last long.
Students and police officers were shown on television together removing some of the barricades outside Mr. Leung’s offices, reports The Associated Press. However, the partial withdrawal may be part of a plan for protesters to organize in other parts of town. Hundreds of student demonstrators showed no sign of abandoning their positions outside Leung’s offices.
“I won’t retreat, unless the police crack down with force,” Kelvin Chung, a recent graduate from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology told The New York Times. “Unless they say they need the space to set up a stage for Leung Chun-ying to speak with us,” he said.
“The students are young and idealistic and determined,” Michael Davis, a law professor at Hong Kong University who has been following the Occupy Central movement closely, told The Christian Science Monitor. “They are not as persuaded as older democracy activists would be about the need to compromise their principles.”
Leung, who has refused to resign, announced over the weekend that the “government and the police have the duty and determination to take all necessary actions to restore social order” in Hong Kong, “so the government and the 7 million people of Hong Kong can return to their normal work and life.”
The AP reports that tensions were high on Sunday amid fears that the police could fire tear gas or rubber bullets to move along the dispersal of demonstrators.
Many in Hong Kong have criticized police response to the largely peaceful student protests. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Hong Kong police are putting their reputation as one of the “most efficient and professional” forces in the region on the line.
…[A]s criticism of its handling of pro-democracy protests mounts, the force’s actions – and, at times, inaction – are playing into the hands of demonstrators who have long said police were abandoning their neutrality to please Beijing.
Concerns about police treatment of protesters have intensified under the department’s leader, Andy Tsang, who was appointed as police commissioner at the start of 2011, and is nicknamed by local media and some officers as “Vulture.”
Academics, activists and some police officers describe him as a hardliner who since his appointment has overseen what they describe as an escalation in tactics to manage the city’s pro-democracy movement.
The latest flashpoints came Friday, when police were criticized for failing to protect pro-democracy protesters who were being assaulted by people opposing them in Mong Kok, a Hong Kong shopping and residential district.
Though police eventually intervened, they did so only after hours of violent confrontations and at times left the area policed only lightly, bystanders and protesters said, despite the continued presence of chaotic crowds.
Police have arrested 30 people since protests began in late September, according to the AP.
According to The Christian Science Monitor's correspondent in Hong Kong, many students are protesting out of concern over their futures. However, their fears of arrest and how that could influence their success later in life is also playing a role.
“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.