HONG KONG (AFP) – Exhausted Hong Kong demonstrators debated the next step in their pro-democracy campaign Monday as their numbers dwindled after a week of rallies, and the city returned to work despite road closures and traffic gridlock.
The protests for free elections that had drawn tens of thousands evaporated Sunday night in the face of a warning from Hong Kong’s embattled leader Leung Chun-ying to disperse and allow government offices to reopen.
Despite the crowds ebbing to just a few hundred weary activists at their main site in the harbourside Admiralty district, student leader Alex Chow said they were dug in and that the ball was “in the court” of the government to enter into stalled talks on political reform.
“Before you see the government taking a step back it’s hard to say we will retreat,” Chow told reporters.
After a week of disruption to schools and businesses, highways were jammed with traffic and subway trains were packed as frustrated commuters tried to find their way to and from work, battling cancelled bus routes and road diversions.
“They have to let the cars through as soon as possible – they are blocking the way,” 25-year-old Michael Lau told AFP as he travelled on the city’s iconic tram network to his job on Hong Kong’s underground railway.
“To demonstrate is one thing, but don’t affect our livelihoods any more because we have rent to pay,” said fruit juice seller Mrs Hau. From her small shop in Admiralty she described the blockaded streets as “a dead city”.
“The property tycoons are not going to say: ‘Let’s reduce the rent this month’ – it still has to be paid,” said her husband.
The protesters have enjoyed strong public support but after a week of disruption irritation has grown. Secondary schools closures in affected areas, which had been a particular headache for families, were lifted on Monday.
The government had been forced to shut its headquarters on Friday due to the ranks of protesters blocking the access roads, leaving 3,000 civil servants at home after a week that also included two public holidays.
On Monday a knot of protesters kept the entrance to the complex partially blocked with barricades, but opened a narrow section to allow workers to enter.
A meeting of the semi-autonomous city’s cabinet scheduled for Tuesday has been relocated due to the continued blockade of the vehicle entrance.
In fear of a repeat of ugly scenes a week ago when police unleashed tear gas on the crowds, only a committed core of about a thousand had waged a vigil through the night.
While relieved they were not cleared away by police ahead of the government’s Monday deadline to abandon the protest sites, those who remained struggled with fatigue as the mood of a once-euphoric campaign went flat.
“It’s good that nothing (no police action) happened but… I hoped that something would happen so we could end this thing quickly,” said Otto Ng Chun-lung, an 18-year-old sociology student.
“Everyone is just exhausted and we can’t go a long, long, long time.”
But some of those on the streets vowed to stay and others have promised to return and swell numbers in the evening, insisting their campaign was not losing steam after the week-long standoff that has at times erupted into violence.