Hong Kong protests: Workers and students resume routines as protests dwindle

Pro-democracy protesters rest on a highway next to the central government offices in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Pro-democracy protesters rest on a highway next to the central government offices in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Protesters surround the police demanding for an explanation for letting an anti-protester go after he had beaten a protester in Mong Kok in the wee hours of the morning on Oct 5, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Protesters surround the police demanding for an explanation for letting an anti-protester go after he had beaten a protester in Mong Kok in the wee hours of the morning on Oct 5, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A man threatening to commit suicide on the bridge along Harcourt Road in the main protest area in Hong Kong on Oct 5, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A man threatening to commit suicide on the bridge along Harcourt Road in the main protest area in Hong Kong on Oct 5, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
The protesters at Mong Kok on Oct 5, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
The protesters at Mong Kok on Oct 5, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A protester walking near the main protest site carrying a sign which says, "We Stay Till The End" at 1am on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A protester walking near the main protest site carrying a sign which says, "We Stay Till The End" at 1am on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Police search for weapons, after receiving a tip-off that a bag was found with long knives inside along Gloucester Road, which leads to Harcourt Road, where the main protest site is located at 1am on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Police search for weapons, after receiving a tip-off that a bag was found with long knives inside along Gloucester Road, which leads to Harcourt Road, where the main protest site is located at 1am on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Government employees arrive to work at an area occupied by protesters outside of the government headquarters building in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- PHOTO:  REUTERS
Government employees arrive to work at an area occupied by protesters outside of the government headquarters building in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- PHOTO:  REUTERS
Government employees arrive to work at an area occupied by protesters outside of the government headquarters building in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- PHOTO:  REUTERS
Government employees arrive to work at an area occupied by protesters outside of the government headquarters building in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- PHOTO:  REUTERS
Government employees arrive to work at an area occupied by protesters outside of the government headquarters building in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- PHOTO:  REUTERS
Government employees arrive to work at an area occupied by protesters outside of the government headquarters building in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- PHOTO:  REUTERS
Gardeners at work on a lawn in front of the flags of China and Hong Kong in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Gardeners at work on a lawn in front of the flags of China and Hong Kong in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A row of umbrellas are seen in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A row of umbrellas are seen in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A man works in a park in front of the flags of China and Hong Kong in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A man works in a park in front of the flags of China and Hong Kong in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A man works in a park in front of the flags of China and Hong Kong in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A man works in a park in front of the flags of China and Hong Kong in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
People sleeping on the street in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
People sleeping on the street in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A man sleeping on a road barrier in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A man sleeping on a road barrier in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Banners hang from a bridge in Hong Kong as office workers try to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Banners hang from a bridge in Hong Kong as office workers try to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A wall of notes and messages is seen in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014 as office workers try to get to work amid diversions caused by blockades made by protesters. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A wall of notes and messages is seen in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014 as office workers try to get to work amid diversions caused by blockades made by protesters. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A man sleeps on the road on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
A man sleeps on the road on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Office workers trying to get to work amid the diversions due to blockades by the protesters at the Central Government offices in Admiralty district in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

THEY had to get up an hour earlier to get to school via subway as their usual bus route was cancelled.

But Ying Wa Girls' School students Bonnie Loo and Edier Ning, both 15, were just happy to be going back to class after unexpectedly getting a week off as pro-democracy protesters closed down central Hong Kong last week.

"All we did was watch the news and chat with friends on Whatsapp. It was boring," Edier said early Monday morning.

"Since we are now behind in class, there will be remedial lessons that will cut into our December holidays," lamented Bonnie, who said that she was against the protesters using disruptive means to make their point.

They were two of the thousands of Hong Kongers resuming their Monday morning routines after a sit-in by pro-democracy activists brought parts of the city to a standstill last week.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly university students, had protested against a plan for Beijing to vet candidates for Hong Kong's chief executive elections, calling it a false fulfilment of a promise for universal suffrage.

Schools in the Central and Admiralty areas were shut down last week, and some 3,000 government workers were blocked from entering their offices on Friday when they returned from a two-day public holiday.

Primary schools are still closed this week and swathes of roads in the Central and Admiralty areas remained sealed off.

But underground on Monday morning, it was business-as-usual as the MTR transported the rush hour horde.

Stony-faced civil servants streamed back to work, disrupted more by a media throng asking for interviews than protesting students, who were napping or chatting quietly in small groups along the main Harcourt Road protest site.

"I support their right to express themselves," said Mr Johnny Poon, 35, who works at the Innovation and Technology Commission. "But they should not have blocked us from work last week, that went too far."

Asked if he enjoyed the unexpected day off last Friday, he looked offended: "I am very behind on my work."

Even those who disrupted their routines by choice in support of the protests seemed to have lost momentum.

Kwan Siu Ki, 17, skipped classes at Yu Chun Keung memorial college Number 2 last week to join the campaign.

He and his friends were galvanised by the police's use of teargas against the protesters last Sunday night, but lost steam quickly.

"I want to support them but not if it affects me personally," he said of his decision to return to class.

Hong Kong University student Crystal Pang, 19, rode the bus to lectures on Monday morning after a full two weeks at the protest site.

"I was torn about leaving the protest, but I am worried for my personal safety," said the languages student, adding that she could not afford to miss two examinations scheduled for the week.

She says she will bring some snacks and supplies to her friends back at the protest site after class.

"Most of us never wanted to do this. But we felt if we didn't object now, there would be no other chance," she says of their campaign. "But I guess I am stopping now because I don't think there will be much of a result."

As the movement marks its ninth day and Hong Kong returns to work and school after the weekend, energy among the protesters is flagging.

Numbers of those camping out at the protest sites at Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok on Sunday night dwindled, while the main protest site at Harcourt Road in Admiralty Monday morning was almost empty.

This was though organiser Federation of Students (HKFS) said its members would continue to stand firm in holding the forts, even as it begins preparatory talks for a meeting with Chief Secretary Carrie Lam.

Its deputy secretary-general Lester Shum said its members had met undersecretary for constitutional affairs Lau Kong-wah and other officials, but had not agreed to its conditions for talks with Mrs Lam and Secretary for Justice Rimsky.

Time may not be on its side. The movement is increasingly fractured, facing dissent both within and outside - which analysts say could offer an opportunity for the government to "stage a comeback".

In an initial move hailed as a breakthrough in the crisis, protesters declared on Sunday night that they were withdrawing from the area outside the Chief Executive's Office in Admiralty and reopening the nearby Lung Wo Road to allow traffic to flow from the eastern to the western part of the island.

A protester shook hands with a police officer, in a "handover" photographed by the media.

Another faction at Mong Kok also said it was retreating and would be regrouping at the main protest site at Harcourt Road in Admiralty.

The developments were announced by Occupy Central, one of the movement's organisers, over Twitter at 6pm.

But less than two hours later, the HKFS issued a statement on Facebook clarifying that it had not called for a retreat.

"Every occupying site is important and represents Hong Kongers' bargaining chip in negotiating with the government," the statement said. "Until we have concrete results, we should stay put."

Later in the night, other protesters re-occupied Lung Wo Road. Over at Mong Kok, the crowd numbers swelled, as more arrived to bolster the ranks and thumb their noses at a deadline set by Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying.

Mr Leung had called for the roads to be cleared by Monday so that government employees can go to work and students can return to school.

Nineteen-year-old Venus Liu, a defiant Baptist University student, said: "It's not a reasonable demand. The only way he can clear the roads is to respond to our requests."

The student protesters had asked for Mr Leung's resignation and for the right of the public to nominate candidates for the 2017 chief executive election.

Last night's developments highlighted cracks in a movement that had melded awkwardly together. The students led by HKFS and Scholarism had kick-started the movement on Sept 26, which Occupy Central - led by academic Benny Tai - latched on to on Sept 28.

Political scientist Peter Cheung of the University of Hong Kong said it appeared the organisers are in disagreement while losing control over developments on the ground.

He noted that protesters of "unknown backgrounds - some who are obviously not students" have joined the movement.

Early Sunday morning, for instance, people purportedly supporting the pro-democracy protest in Mong Kok surrounded and heckled police officers, resulting in the use of pepper spray and some injuries. There had also been a constant stream of altercations with anti-Occupy protesters.

Warned Prof Cheung: "By not retreating now, the organisers fall into the dangerous scenario of allowing the authorities - whether the Hong Kong government or Beijing - to drum up popular support to justify future measures including Article 23."

This refers to a controversial national security law that the central government has long wanted to pass but which was shelved in 2003 after a public outcry here.

A growing list of prominent politicians and activists, including those from the pan-democracy camp and university administrators, are calling on the students to retreat.

Former chief executive Tung Chee Hwa applauded the students' "great sacrifice" but said the time had now come for dialogue, reported the South China Morning Post.

Mr Andrew Li, the former chief justice, saying that their lives could be in danger, added: "I sincerely urge the student protesters to leave immediately."

The Singapore consulate on Sunday issued an alert to Singaporeans in Hong Kong, calling on them to avoid areas with large number of protesters given the "real risk of confrontation".

Signed by Consul-General Jacky Foo, the message was posted on the consulate website and disseminated via the Ministry of Foreign Affair's Twitter account on Sunday evening. There are an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Singaporeans based in Hong Kong.

rchang@sph.com.sg