The Hong Kong government said Monday that riot police have pulled back from pro-democracy demonstrations around the city that have caused widespread disruption in one of Asia’s financial hubs.
Defiant demonstrators remained on the streets of Hong Kong’s financial center, blocking traffic on key highways a day after clashes with police that left more than 40 people injured.
Explaining the decision to withdraw the riot police, the government said in a statement that the protesters on the streets were now behaving peacefully. But protesters have pointed out that the unrest Sunday resulted from heavy-handed police tactics.
Riot police remained on guard on the sidelines of the main protest area near the government headquarters, although not in large numbers.
The government urged the demonstrators to disperse to allow emergency vehicles, public transport and other traffic to pass. Its statement followed calls from some protest organizers for people to return home.
But with thousands of demonstrators continuing to jam streets in key financial and commercial districts, it appeared unlikely that the extraordinary protest movement would end anytime soon.
The demonstrations, which authorities have intermittently attempted to disperse by force, follow a week of student-led boycotts and protests against what many see as the encroachment of China’s political will on Hong Kong’s governance.
The protesters were responding to China’s decision to allow only Beijing-vetted candidates to stand in the city’s elections for chief executive, Hong Kong’s top civil position.
‘Our demands have not changed’
One student group, fearing police might use rubber bullets, asked late Sunday for demonstrators to leave. But while the mood at the primary protest calmed, there was no large exodus.
Not all protest leaders were calling for people to leave. Pro-democracy activist and lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, known by many as “Long Hair,” cheered on those who were staying.
“Our demands have not changed. This is a peaceful civil disobedience protest,” he called out over a loudspeaker as midnight approached.
‘Don’t sacrifice your lives’
Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong and a leader of Occupy Central, was one of the organizers who called for demonstrators to disperse.
“Please go home, don’t sacrifice your lives,” he said to the protesters. Dialogue is impossible at this point, he told them.
Police said they hadn’t used plastic bullets.
At least 41 people have been injured and taken to hospitals, the Hong Kong Information Services Department said Monday. A spokesman gave no details on the extent of the injuries. The department earlier said six police officers were injured, but it was unclear whether they were included in the 41 figure.
Several of the young people occupying the business district told CNN they were going to stay overnight.
The student-led protests, which were joined Sunday by the like-minded Occupy Central movement, have sought to occupy government property and shut down the business district.