A leading student group has pulled out of negotiations with the Hong Kong government on ending protests here after an angry crowd surrounded pro-democracy protesters Friday, assaulting them and calling them traitors.
Police intervened and formed a circle around the protesters, most of them young students, but they were initially outnumbered by the angry crowd, some of whom landed punches and kicked protesters or people thought to be protesters.
The violence intensified as day turned into night, prompting at least one prominent student group, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, to pull out of talks with government authorities on ways to end the mass demonstrations.
Some protest leaders blamed the siege on pro-government associations doing the bidding of Beijing, which has called the protests “an illegal gathering” in semi-autonomous Hong Kong.
“We knew that this would happen,” Faye Lai, 21, a supporter of the students, said as he watched the melee unfold from inside the tent. “This is day six of the protests. People are tired. And those people outside know we are tired and so they want to take us out.”
Early Saturday morning, police reported arresting 19 people and said that some of them were members of “triads” – organized crime gangs – according to a report in the South China Morning Post. Police provided no further immediate details, but it confirmed the suspicions of many demonstrators that hired guns had been brought in to roust them.
In addition, several so-called “patriotic” organizations in Hong Kong have been using Facebook and other social media to urge and end to the demonstrations. They include names such as “Silent Majority,” “Voice of Hong Kong” and “Caring Hong Kong Power.”
Several people in the anti-protest crowd Friday denied that they had arrived as part of a coordinated call to action.
“A lot of Hong Kong people think this is not right,” said Alfred Lee, 62, who said he came as an individual. “The protest groups said they would only occupy central (Hong Kong). So why did they come here? And why are they still here?”
Friday’s confrontation took place in Mong Kok, a working-class area of Kowloon across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island. Students and other protesters started occupying the site Monday, after police used pepper spray against students near the city’s government complex in downtown Hong Kong.
By Tuesday, tens of thousands of people had converged on Mong Kok and other protest sites to show support for the student protesters. In Mong Kok, the crowds converged on a long stretch of Nathan Road, a popular shopping street, blocked by stalled buses and barricades.
But their numbers dropped in recent days, revealing fatigue among the protesters and splits in internal strategy. Protesters Friday could be heard discussing whether they should hold their ground or abandon the tent, but they remained steadfast throughout the night, with help from fresh protesters coming in. But they gave up a section of Nathan Road north of the protest site that police soon reopened to traffic.
Earlier in the evening, a man in the crowd climbed a step ladder and used a public address system to urge the students to leave immediately, saying they could do so safely with the assistance of police. The students and their supporters, arms locked together in a circle around the tent, yelled back, “Defense! Defense! Defense!.”
David Walker, a native of Great Britain who has lived in Hong Kong since 1979, said he has seen many protests in Hong Kong. “But none like this. There are big demonstrations here, but usually they involve groups that get permits and don’t occupy entire city streets,” he said.
Walker said businesses had been hurt, a claim rejected by Lai, the protest supporter. Lai urged a reporter to walk a block away, where a luxury mall was filled with huge crowds of shoppers, some of them Chinese tourists from the mainland.
Skirmishes between protesters and older men have been going on for several days in Mong Kok, but they increased Friday morning and intensified in the afternoon. About 2 p.m., the crowds surrounding the students swelled, with men occasionally dashing in to attempt to knock down the tent. They were pushed back by students, and at roughly 2:30, police officers arrived to separate the two sides. By 5 p.m., hundreds of people had surrounded the tent, some yelling profanity in Cantonese, with others dashing in to pick fights or grab equipment from the tent.
Several students were injured in the melee, and teenage volunteers inside the tent could be seen crying as an injured man was brought into the tent in the afternoon. Yelling and chanting from the crowd could be heard throughout Mong Kok, attracting more crowds to the site, in spite of bouts of heavy rain.
Some students complained that police arrived too late and were initially understaffed to secure public safety. But by 9 p.m., large numbers of police had arrived, as had student supporters. Officers, none of them in riot gear, worked to keep the groups apart.
Harassment of student protesters was also reported in Causeway Bay, on Hong Kong Island. Some 30 women’s and gay rights groups held a press conference Friday decrying what they said were groups of men groping young women both there and at Mong Kok.
On Thursday, there appeared to be a possible break in the impasse splitting the government and protesters. Hong Kong’s chief executive agreed for his administration to hold talks with students, possibly as soon as Saturday. But on Friday, at least one major student group said it was pulling out of the talks, and another said it would do so if the government didn’t step up to prevent “organized attacks” on supporters.
Daniel Tan, 42, a teacher who said he was sympathetic to both protesters and affected businesses in Mong Kok, said that starting an occupation is easier than ending it. The students, he said, need to figure out an overall strategy to push their cause without putting themselves at harm and holding public support.
“This is the turning point for everything that is going on,” said Tan. “The government wants the students to evacuate, and then talks can be held.” But by evacuating, he acknowledged, the pro-democracy protesters lose what leverage they have.