Student-led protests for democratic reforms in Hong Kong subsided Monday but a few hundred demonstrators remained camped out in the streets, vowing to keep up the pressure until the government responds to their demands.
Schools reopened and civil servants returned to work Monday morning after protesters cleared the area outside the city's government headquarters, a focal point of the demonstrations that started the previous weekend. Crowds also thinned markedly at the two other protest sites, and traffic flowed again through many road that had been blocked.
The subdued scenes left many wondering whether the movement, which has been free-forming and largely spontaneous, had run its course, and what the students would do next.
Early talks between the government and the students have started, but many disagreements remain. Students say they will walk away from the talks as soon as the government uses force to clear away the remaining protesters.
"This is definitely not the end — we've never set a timeframe for how long this should go on. It's normal for people to go home, to come and go," said Alex Chow, one of the student leaders. "It's up to the government now. This is the first step, but the pressure has to continue."
The number of protesters had swelled into the tens of thousands last week to express opposition to China's decision to screen all nominees in the first direct elections for Hong Kong's leader, promised by Beijing for 2017. The activists want open nominations and the resignation of the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who has refused to step down.
The previous weekend, police fired tear gas and pepper spray on unarmed protesters, prompting some to defend themselves with umbrellas and homemade masks. That galvanized public support for the demonstrations, and on both weekends, tens of thousands of protesters have turned out in the streets.
But on Monday the numbers were down to just a couple hundred in the main protest site of Admiralty and in the Mong Kok area, where some scuffles broke out over the weekend between protests and residents. About 25 protesters, mostly students, refused to budge from their site outside the government headquarters, and some say they plan to stay for as long as they can.
Police said they had arrested 30 people since the start of the protests. Protesters, meanwhile, complained the police were failing to protect them from attacks by mobs intent on driving them away.
Differences and confusion within the movement became clear on Sunday, when several leaders announced a retreat from key sites — even as others declared there was no withdrawal, or urged protesters to regroup in one main area. The movement, broadly known as Occupy Central — a campaign founded by law professor Benny Tai last year — has no central leadership, and coordination has come from several different student groups.
One faction, Scholarism, is led by 17-year-old Joshua Wong and draws many younger students, while the Federation of Students represents mostly university students. But many who took part say they follow no particular group or leader.
"We support the students, but we are not following their lead. We came out here on our own," said protester Angel Chan, 27. "People here are here for themselves, and their future, and the future of Hong Kong."
Lawmakers and politicians have played almost no role in the movement.
"The credit goes to the students who brought so many people to occupy the government offices," said Martin Lee, a veteran pro-democracy lawmaker in the city.
On Monday, many remaining protesters were undeterred by the dwindling number of participants.
"I think the government is waiting for us to get up. They always say the protests must end and are trying to use violence to stop it," said Jackie Ho, 18. "But I think they just want to scare us."
Ho said she wanted to stay until the demonstrations were over — though she is also worried that she is losing time on her studies.
Louis Chan, also 18, said he needs to return to university to clock his attendance, and he was not sure achieving universal suffrage — the students' original goal — is now likely.
"I did think it was possible, but now I don't think so because they (the Hong Kong government) don't give any response and China is also very much against this," he said.
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