Hong Kong authorities announced a withdrawal of riot police from the streets in a major concession to pro-democracy demonstrators.
A statement posted on the government’s website read: “Because citizens gathered on the street have calmed, riot police have been withdrawn.”
The statement also called on protesters “to give up occupied roads as soon as possible for emergency vehicles to pass through and for the partial restoration of public transport services”.
Thousands of protesters have taken control of at least three major thoroughfares, paralysing parts of the city after hours of overnight battles with police firing tear gas.
Throughout Monday morning the police presence has been noticeably more subdued with riot police replaced by smaller numbers of officers in everyday uniforms.
At one protest site in the busy Causeway Bay shopping district there was no visible police presence.
But demonstrators have shown little sign of heeding the government’s call to leave the streets.
Organisers have said that as many as 80 000 people have thronged the streets after the protests flared on Friday night. No independent estimate of numbers was available.
The protests, led mostly by young tech-savvy students who have grown up with freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, represent one of the biggest threats confronted by Beijing’s Communist Party leadership since its bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy student protests in and around Tiananmen Square.
Cracking down too hard could shake confidence in market-driven Hong Kong, while not reacting firmly enough could embolden dissidents on the mainland.
China rules Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” formula that accords the territory limited democracy. The protesters are demanding Beijing give them full democracy, with the freedom to nominate election candidates, but China recently announced that it would not go that far.
Televised scenes of the chaos in Hong Kong over the weekend have also made a deep impression on many viewers outside Hong Kong. That was especially the case in Taiwan, which has full democracy but is considered by China as a renegade province that must one day be reunited with the Communist-run mainland.
“Taiwan people are watching this closely,” Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou said in an interview with Al Jazeera. – AFP, Reuters