HONG KONG, Nov 19 – After one group of protesters offered little resistance to authorities clearing out a section of their long-running encampment Tuesday morning, others — apparently frustrated that the movement has stalled — arrived in the evening and used barricades to break the glass facade of the government’s legislative council building.
The more radical protesters appeared to be trying to storm into the legislative building while other protesters blocked police from interfering. In response, police unleashed pepper spray. The different approaches by the pro-democracy demonstrators helped punctuate a debate over when and how to end the protests — and what that ending will mean for this city’s prospects for democracy.
It began quietly enough. Authorities cleared barricades from several roads around the main site Tuesday after a court issued an order to allow free access to a commercial building. A few protesters even helped workers carry away barricades as a sign of compliance. The action — the first in weeks against the occupied sites downtown — took place after the owners of CITIC Tower secured a court injunction to unblock the entrance to the building on the edge of the main protest site in Hong Kong’s Admiralty District.
Hong Kong’s leaders appear to be taking an incremental approach, after use of force in recent months only sent more residents into the streets in support of the movement. The authorities did not attempt to clear barricades or tents from the center of the protest site, where a few hundred demonstrators have remained. Several hundred protesters observing the street clearing did not resist the court order, though many debated with authorities exactly which areas were covered by it.
The action, which was telegraphed well in advanced by police announcements on Monday, began at 9:30 a.m. as bailiffs read out the court order and asked people to leave the site. Shortly afterward, several workers hired by the property owners used wire cutters to remove plastic ties binding together barriers around the 33-story CITIC building, which houses offices, restaurants and shops. About 100 police officers stood by, without the riot gear that has marked several of their previous violent clashes with the student protesters.
Earlier, Hong Kong police announced in a statement that they were “ready to give the fullest support to the bailiffs to execute the court order.” “Any act that amounts to obstruction may render one liable to the offense of ‘criminal contempt of court.’ If anyone obstructs or violently charges the bailiffs when they are executing their duties, Police will take resolute action,” said a police notice Monday.
The court issued a similar injunction last month ordering students to leave a site in the working-class neighborhood of Mong Kok, a result of complaints by local taxi drivers and a bus company. A third injunction is under consideration, brought by two bus companies requesting that more streets in Admiralty be cleared. For more than a month, students have camped out in three of Hong Kong’s busiest neighborhoods: Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay.
In the movement’s early days in late September, hundreds of thousands of people joined them, particularly after Hong Kong authorities, with little warning, used pepper spray and tear gas on unarmed students. Since then, despite sporadic clashes, the government has been reluctant to employ similar force for fear of further galvanizing the movement.
As a result, the movement — known as the Umbrella Revolution or Occupy Central — has waned in recent days, with a hard-core group of just a few hundred protesters remaining on most days. According to a poll released Sunday by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, support for the occupying students has dropped to 33.9 percent, compared with 37.8 percent in October. Of the respondents, 43.5 percent said they do not support the Occupy movement, up from 35.5 percent in October.
Three student leaders attempted to fly to Beijing on Saturday to take their demands to China’s top officials. They were stopped at the Hong Kong airport. A much-anticipated televised dialogue Oct. 21 between Hong Kong leaders and five student representatives also failed to resolve the issue. When the former British colony was handed back to Chinese control in 1997, Beijing promised “one country, two systems” — a policy it said would grant Hong Kong more autonomy than other parts of China. It has also promised democratic elections for chief executive in 2017 and for legislative council after 2020.
But in recent statements, Chinese leaders have made clear that they will allow only candidates vetted and approved by Beijing to be elected. The dispute also taps into deeper resentment and tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China in recent years over the influx of mainlanders to Hong Kong. The newcomers have brought business but also strained resources and sparked competition for goods and services ranging from housing to baby formula.