Hong Kong protests: Day of reckoning dawns as pro-democracy demonstrators told to leave streets

The city’s chief executive has told demonstrators to end their week-long protest after hinting that he may call in troops from the mainland to help clear the streets as Beijing watches events closely. Peter Popham reports from Hong Kong

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Whatever happens in the coming days – and the predictions are dire – Hong Kong will never be the same after an amazing week.

One week ago, a barrage of tear gas exploding around a modest student demonstration catapulted Hong Kong into a new place.

It’s an ideal world that has no business existing in the heart of a place as hard-headed and money-minded as this. A multi-lane city-centre highway became a people’s park, a flyover ramp became the site of gentle family strolls. Teenagers line this impromptu park with shops that offer cold drinks, hot soup, towels, umbrellas and much more. They are like the million shopkeepers in the real Hong Kong outside, with the difference that no money is offered or taken.

Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers, the majority very young, have found the courage to imagine and put into practice a way of living and sharing that has nothing in common either with Hong Kong’s cut-throat capitalism nor with the crony communism rampant on the mainland.


There are no police in this world. Instead there are first-aid stations staffed by volunteers. More volunteers circulate with signs printed with the number to call if you need legal advice. There are mobile democracy classrooms. The advertising installations for fashion magazines and perfume are plastered with satirical depictions of Hong Kong’s chief executive C Y Leung. The walls of the flyover ramp bear messages of support in 61 languages, including Welsh, Scots Gaelic, Quebecois French and Pashto. Five days ago these occupied streets were kept immaculately clean by volunteers. They are still immaculately clean today.

Near the back of the crowd of 5,000 listening to speeches on Sunday night was an elegant middle-aged couple, Makim, 44, and Fafa, his wife, 36. They held up pieces of paper which said simply, “Thank you.” Fafa said: “We’ve come here every day. I own a make-up shop in Causeway Bay” – site of one of the occupation camps – “and of course it’s hurt my business. But we hope they will change Hong Kong. Our bodies are weak but our faith is strong.”

Anger brought this place into being, but there is no anger on display, let alone violence or looting. You sense people falling in love. At dawn on Saturday a young couple in Causeway Bay got engaged in the occupied street– the pictures were all over Facebook in no time.

But this world with its clear rules – no booze, no graffiti, no mess,  signs that say “Please don’t waste produce and leave with your garbage” – could be living through its last hours. Yesterday powerful, realistic men were telling the inhabitants of this world, time’s up. Go home, right away.

Former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang said, “The students’ ideals and aspirations for democracy have been fully understood and are respected. it is now time for them to leave the protest venue. No one would like to see the students getting hurt. I sincerely urge the students to leave immediately. Otherwise there is a danger to their safety.”

Before flying to Washington for meetings with the International Monetary Fund, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah said: “The high speed of development over the past week was completely out of everybody’s expectation. It’s hard not to be concerned that more serious chaos could happen. This event is a grave test for all Hong Kong people. Its handling shall require everyone’s wisdom and patience.”

These warnings reinforced that of Mr Leung, who said on Saturday that, today being a regular working day, the roads around the government offices must be cleared so civil servants can get to their desks. Yesterday the air was thick with rumours that drastic action could be taken at any time.

A protester sleeps in the street outside the Hong Kong government building (Getty Images)

Professor Michael DeGolyer, a close observer of changing Hong Kong, told The Independent: “People are beginning to sense we are approaching an inflection point. Leung’s statement that if the streets and particularly around government offices are not cleared by tomorrow morning the ‘Hong Kong government may probably lose control’ of HK is very ominous: that is the condition under which central government forces may be called for assistance.

“It is a clear warning that he may already have the backing of central government authorities to legalise the entry of People’s Liberation Army troops or Security Police in large numbers.”

The picture is complicated by increasing signs of dissent from ordinary members of the public. The occupation of the working-class commercial district of Mong Kok has seen continual tension between occupiers and those opposed to them, some criminals but others local shopkeepers infuriated by the damage to their businesses. Yesterday the hostility showed signs of spilling into the Admiralty area with the arrival of a small but noisy demonstration demanding that police clear the roads.

Both government and occupation sides were yesterday holding out hopes of dialogue, the olive branch extended by Mr Leung last Thursday, but spurned by the students after the outbreak of Triad-inspired violence in Mong Kok.