NEW: Officials and protest leaders lay down a framework for formal talks
NEW: "We hope to have a frank, direct" talk, Honk Kong government spokesman says
A key road near the protest site reopened to traffic Monday morning
Crowds are noticeably thinner at the main protest site
The Hong Kong government and pro-democracy protestors laid down a framework for formal talks late Monday, opening the door for a negotiated solution to the standoff that has gripped the city.
Students continued to barricade major roads in several parts of the city Tuesday morning, though their numbers were considerably lower than in the previous week.
The Hong Kong government and Hong Kong Federation of Students held preliminary talks Monday. Afterward, government spokesman Lau Kong-wah said it had been agreed that several rounds of negotiations would be held. Both sides would have equal standing in the talks, and the government would “confirm and execute any outcomes,” he said.
“We hope to have a frank, direct and mutually (respectful dialogue),” Lau said. “We have very good progress, and we have agreed on three principles of the dialogue, and we hope to have this meeting as soon as possible.”
The government appeared to have changed its tone significantly from just a week ago, when it labeled student activities illegal. But Hong Kong top official C.Y. Leung released a video statement saying students should consider the hassles to the general public and insisted the students clear the vehicle entrances to the government headquarters.
He also advised students to leave the district of Mong Kok, where violent clashes have broken out between demonstrators and those who oppose their activities. ” To prevent violent crimes and lower the risk of injuries and fatality, the police will take actions at appropriate time,” Leung said.
The student-led protesters have taken to the streets for more than a week to oppose a decision by the central Chinese government about how elections will work in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
No clear leader
Commentators have described the protest movement as one of the biggest challenges for China’s ruling Communist Party since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, which ended in a bloody military crackdown.
The Chinese government has said it has confidence that the Hong Kong government can handle the situation on its own. But Leung’s repeated calls for protesters to go home and let traffic in the city return to normal have had little effect.
Part of the Hong Kong government’s challenge is that the protest movement has no clear leader. Several students and activists have come to represent the demonstrators, but it remains uncertain how much sway their decisions carry among the people on the streets.
Opinions vary considerably among protesters about what the methods and aims of the decentralized movement should be.
One of the student leaders said Monday that it was up to the government to take the next step after protesters allowed access to the central offices.
The news of official talks comes as a dwindling number of pro-democracy demonstrators continue to cling on to their protest sites in key areas of the tightly packed city. As their numbers wane, so does patience of some of their fellow citizens.
Government not satisfied
Student leaders have said they will continue the protest until they have productive talks with the government.
But the government suggested Monday that the protesters needed to do more to improve the situation, saying in a statement that demonstrators were still preventing vehicles from getting to the central offices.
The Hong Kong government and Hong Kong Federation of Students held preliminary talks Monday.
Afterward, government spokesman Lau Kong-wah said it had been agreed that several rounds of negotiations would be held. Both sides would have equal standing in the talks, and the government would “confirm and execute any outcomes,” he said.
“We hope to have a frank, direct and mutually (respectful dialogue),” Lau said. “We have very good progress, and we have agreed on three principals of the dialogue, and we hope to have this meeting as soon as possible.”
Government workers arriving at the headquarters earlier expressed optimism about the impasse and reported no problems with their commutes.
“I am quite sure that the situation will become better,” said Terence Mui, a civil servant.
He said his feelings about the protests were “quite mixed,” acknowledging the demonstrators’ cause but expressing a wish to continue fulfilling his duties as a public official.
Merchants say businesses suffering
Other Hong Kong residents have shown less patience with the protesters.
Violent clashes broke out Friday and Saturday between protesters and people opposed to the sit-ins at one of the satellite protest sites in the densely populated commercial district of Mong Kok.
Merchants have expressed anger that the demonstrations are driving customers away. Protesters say police aren’t doing enough to protect them from physical attacks by groups of men.
But police say officers did their duty and arrested more than 30 people amid the clashes, including some with links to organized crime.
In a statement Monday, police spokesman Hui Chun-tak said many officers had been injured in the past few days, with “reports involving 27 officers.”
“Police will not tolerate these acts of violence. I strongly believe that the public does not want to see such violent scenes and, certainly, does not accept any violent acts damaging public order and public safety,” he said.
A CNN team at the Mong Kok site Monday said that about 50 protesters remained, with a crowd of 500 people – both supporters and those against them – surrounding them. Protesters responded to those who wanted them to go by shouting and singing “Happy Birthday.”
The number of police had risen from around 30 to 100, some of whom said they were there in case violence broke out.
Distrust between the demonstrators and authorities has been deep since police used tear gas and pepper spray in a failed attempt to disperse the largely peaceful protests last week.
The tough tactics backfired, shocking many Hong Kong residents and appearing to rally support for the protesters.
Origins of the unrest
Demonstrators are upset about a decision this summer by the Communist Party to let a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists choose who can run as a candidate for the chief executive role in the 2017 election.
A new electoral system will, for the first time, let the city’s 5 million eligible voters pick a winner rather than the largely pro-Beijing committee of 1,200 members that has chosen past leaders. But critics say the right to vote is pointless if Beijing handpicks the candidates.
They complain the Chinese government is encroaching too heavily on the affairs of Hong Kong, which has been governed according to the “one country, two systems” policy since Britain handed it back to China in 1997.
The Chinese and Hong Kong governments have declared the demonstrations illegal. Beijing has heavily restricted the flow of information on the Chinese mainland about the protest movement.
CNN’s Kyung Lah, Elizabeth Joseph and Tim Hume, translator Daisy Ng and journalist Eudora Wong contributed to this report.