For a few days now, the signs of exhaustion have been obvious. After more than a week of tense and sleepless nights, waiting for a police push-back that has yet to materialize, Hong Kong‘s youthful pro-democracy protesters were exploring the boundaries of endurance. In the less frantic moments, they slumped against walls and concrete road dividers, or they splayed out on hot pavement with towels draped over their faces, trying vainly to catch some shut-eye amidst the general chaos.
It wasn’t sustainable. On Monday, after a weekend government deadline to dismantle the barricades had come and gone without consequences, the will to keep fighting started to ebb away.
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Student organizers had made the first gesture by removing some of the steel crowd fencing and clearing a path for government workers to return to their offices. Hong Kong authorities reciprocated by declaring that all central district schools would re-open after a week-long shutdown. Late Sunday, the two sides began to hammer out the conditions for more formal and open negotiations over the students’ demands for universal suffrage in the 2017 elections. However, it appears that Hong Kong’s chief executive, C.Y. Leung, will defy their wishes and remain in place—at least in the short term. Even if many downtown roads remain blocked, a sense of normalcy has started to return to the Island.
In the heat of the 30º C day, there were fewer than 200 demonstrators who remained on guard at the main flashpoint in the Admiralty. Satellite protests in Mong Kok and Causeway Bay were manned by even fewer. At nightfall, the crowds of students returned to Central, but in much smaller numbers than over the past week—perhaps 2,000 to 3,000, versus the 50,000-plus who were in attendance on Saturday night.
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“A few days ago, they used tear gas and pepper spray to urge us to leave, but they failed,” said Lily Lai, one of the handful of students still occupying Hennesey Road, the toney shopping thoroughfare in Causeway Bay. “I think we have achieved something.”
Are the demonstrations coming to an end? It’s hard to say. The opportunity for a negotiated settlement certainly seems to be there, but the defiant spirit of the remaining students is undiminished.