HONG KONG – In an apparent concession to authorities warning pro-democracy protesters to clear Hong Kong's streets by the beginning of the work week, students occupying the area outside city government headquarters agreed Sunday to remove some barricades that have blocked the building's entrance during the weeklong demonstrations.
But it was not immediately clear how significant the move was and how much it would defuse the standoff, with many protesters vowing to stay in the area. The partial withdrawal also appeared to be part of a strategy to regroup in another part of town.
Television footage from the scene showed a protest representative shaking hands with a police officer and the two sides removing some barricades together. About 300 demonstrators remained standing peacefully outside the government's main building, and did not appear to have intentions to move.
Across the harbor in Hong Kong's Mong Kok district, protesters appeared divided about whether to stay put or decamp to the city's Admiralty area, the main protest site. The atmosphere in Mong Kok was relatively relaxed as people began to clear out, though many said they were headed home and not to another protest area.
"I don't know what the next step is, but I will not retreat. The people you see here will not retreat," said Burnett Tung, an 18-year-old student who has served as a volunteer at a food supply station outside government headquarters all week.
"The leaders of the movement are the citizens. We're leading the movement, not them," said Roy Wong, 21, referring to some protest leaders who called for a retreat from Mong Kok.
Tens of thousands of people, many of them students, have poured into the streets of the semi-autonomous city over the past week to peacefully protest China's restrictions on the first-ever direct election for Hong Kong's top leader, promised by Beijing for 2017. But with the standoff between the protesters and the government in its eighth day, tempers were flaring and patience was waning among residents who oppose the occupation of the streets and the disruption it has brought.
Police using pepper spray clashed with protesters overnight, after officials said they intended to have key streets open for schools and offices by Monday morning. Large crowds of demonstrators scuffled with police in the blue-collar Mong Kok district, a flash point that has seen violent clashes between pro-democracy student protesters and their antagonists throughout the weekend.
Police said they had to disperse the crowds with force because protesters had provoked officers with verbal abuse, while the students accused police of failing to protect them from attacks by mobs intent on driving them away. The students say police allied themselves with criminal gangs to clear them, but the government has vehemently denied the accusation.
Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, appeared on television Saturday evening to urge everyone to go home, saying key roads paralyzed by protesters needed to return to normal by Monday.
"The government and the police have the duty and determination to take all necessary actions to restore social order so the government and the 7 million people of Hong Kong can return to their normal work and life," Leung said.
Police said they had arrested 30 people since the protests started Sept. 28, and that 27 police officers had been injured while on duty in the protest areas.
"To restore order, we are determined and we are confident we have the capability to take any necessary action," said police spokesman Steve Hui. "We have to make correct assessments, then depending on the prevailing situation, we will consider all necessary measures."
Asked to clarify the authorities' demands for clearing areas near government offices, Hui would say only that government workers needed to work.
"There should not be any unreasonable, unnecessary obstruction by any members of the public," he said.
The atmosphere on the streets was tense Sunday amid fears police may use pepper spray and tear gas to disperse the protesters, as they did last weekend. The University of Hong Kong, among others, warned students to leave the streets.
"I am making this appeal from my heart because I genuinely believe that if you stay, there is a risk to your safety," said Peter Mathieson, the university's president. "Please leave now. You owe it to your loved ones to put your safety above all other considerations."
The protests are the strongest challenge to authorities in Hong Kong -- and in Beijing -- since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing has promised that the city can have universal suffrage by 2017, but it says a committee of mostly pro-Beijing figures must screen candidates for the top job. The protesters also are demanding Leung's resignation, but he has refused to step down.
The next steps are uncertain, after student leaders called off planned talks with the government until officials respond to claims that police tolerated attacks by alleged mobsters. The movement has largely been free-forming, and many who take part are uncertain of what comes next.
The government said Sunday that it was happy to talk to the students, and that it hoped protest leaders would cooperate and allow the reopening of the roads outside the government's headquarters.
"I believe there will be lots of people who want to stop the police from clearing this place," Jack Fung, a 19-year-old student, said at the government headquarters Sunday morning. "But if the police use rubber bullets, or real bullets, there will be many people who will leave the place, because it will be too dangerous."
Fung said he supported allowing civil servants to go back to work Monday, but he believed protesters should block Leung from entering his office.
In Mong Kok, the violence calmed later Sunday, but rowdy crowds kept up loud and heated street arguments. Many residents and businesspeople are fed up with the disruption, saying they want to return to normal life as soon as possible.
Police officers carrying guns patrolled the area, and at least one officer was seen carrying tear gas canisters.
"This is a public place, people need to use this road, people need to live here," said Johnson Cheung, 26, who works in a duty-free shop. "The students don't need to make a living, their parents pay for them. But we have jobs, we have to live."