HONG KONG – Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters called off planned talks with the government on electoral reforms Friday after mobs of people tried to drive them from streets they had occupied in one of the city's main shopping areas.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the groups leading the protests that swelled to the tens of thousands earlier this week, said they saw no choice but to cancel the talks.
"The government is demanding the streets be cleared. We call upon all Hong Kong people to immediately come to protect our positions and fight to the end," the group said in a statement.
Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, proposed the talks late Thursday, seeking to defuse the standoff, the biggest challenge to Beijing's authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.
His refusal to yield to calls for his resignation angered many protesters. They demanded that the government hold someone responsible for the scuffles Friday in Kowloon's crowded Mong Kok district and other areas, the most chaotic since police used tear gas and pepper spray last weekend to try to disperse the demonstrations.
Just as those tactics ended up drawing more people into the streets, the attacks on Friday drew hundreds of supporters.
It was unclear if the people trying to drive out the protesters were organized, though some wore blue ribbons signaling their support for the mainland Chinese government, while the protesters have worn yellow ribbons. At least some were local residents fed up with the inconvenience of blocked streets and closed shops, and were perhaps encouraged to take matters into their own hands by police calls for the protesters to clear the streets.
"It's not about whether I support their cause or not. It's about whether what they are doing is legal or not," said Donald Chan, 45. "It is illegal. It has brought chaos to the city."
In the afternoon, democracy activists, mostly students, linked arms and held hands as they tried to stand their ground. Police formed cordons and escorted some of the protesters away as hundreds of people chanted, "Pack up!" and "Go home!"
But the tide seemed to turn in the evening, when hundreds assembled, shouting at the opponents of the protesters and haranguing police to protect the students. Police ended up escorting some of the mob of people in their 30s and older out of the area.
The chaos prompted orders from police and other top officials for all to avoid violence and go home.
"We should not use violence or disrupt social order in any situation," Chief Executive Leung said. "All people gathering in those areas should disperse as soon as possible and restore social order, so that daily lives will be restored to normal."
During the worst of the disturbances, police appeared hard-pressed to keep order as the two sides tussled in a tense standoff. Some people emerged bloodied from the fracas. Occasional heavy rain showers did not noticeably thin the crowds.
The protesters have stayed in the streets since Sept. 26, pledging to preserve Hong Kong's Western-style legal system and civil liberties. They want the Chinese government to reverse a decision requiring all candidates in the first election for Hong Kong's leader in 2017 to be approved by a mostly pro-Beijing committee. The demonstrators want open nominations.
Hong Kong's top civil servant, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, said Friday she had begun organizing the talks with the protesters, before the students called them off.
China's government has mostly kept quiet during the crisis, other than to call the protests illegal and support the Hong Kong government's efforts to disperse them. However, the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily on Friday accused a small group of demonstrators of trying to "hijack the system" and said the protest effort was doomed to failure.
There is "no room for concessions" on the candidate screening issue, it said in a front-page editorial, noting that Hong Kong "is directly under the jurisdiction of the central government; it is not a country or an independent political entity."
Some who are sympathetic to the protesters' demands for wider democracy complained that the police were not doing enough to protect the demonstrators. But others complained that the protests were disrupting their lives and hurting their livelihoods.
"It affected my company, a perfume business, to deliver goods in the area," said Ken Lai in the bustling Causeway Bay neighborhood. "I really dislike the fact that they occupied so many areas, all scattered around the city. I'm a Hong Konger too. The occupiers don't represent all of us."