Hong Kong protests thin as two sides agree to talk

Hong Kong protests thin as two sides agree to talk

Crowds of protesters who filled Hong Kong's streets with demands for a greater say in choosing the territory's leader thinned dramatically today after student leaders and the government agreed to hold talks in this increasingly frustrated city.

Just a couple of days after tens of thousands of demonstrators thronged the city's streets, only a few dozen students were occupying some stretches of highway, once again snarling traffic and slowing commuters.

One young protester sleepily brushed his teeth as rush hour began, spitting into a storm drain along the blockaded six-lane highway that cuts through the heart of Hong Kong's business district. Nearby, a sleeping demonstrator leaned back in a nylon chair, his mouth open and his eyeglasses askew.

Despite the dwindling numbers of activists on the streets, protest leaders insisted the movement was far from defeated, and vowed to walk away from negotiations if the police used force to clear away the remaining demonstrators. At least a few hundred protesters are thought to be scattered across the city's three main protest areas.

"It's up to the government now. This is the first step, but the pressure has to continue," said Alex Chow, a student leader.

Yesterday, Lau Kong-wah, the territory's undersecretary of constitutional affairs, said the government and students had agreed on terms for talks, saying the two sides would enter discussions on an equal footing. Lester Shum, a leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, confirmed the agreement, but said they had not discussed or reached a consensus on the agenda. A date for the meeting had not been set.

The dueling questions now are how long the demonstrators are willing to continue their protests — and how long until the government removes them.

"We are safe (from a crackdown) for the moment," said Joseph Cheng, a specialist in Chinese politics at the City University of Hong Kong who has deep ties to Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. "Now that there are negotiations going on or at least negotiations to discuss negotiations we expect that the police will not clear the protesters for a few days."

But with the authorities unlikely to agree to the protesters' immediate demands, including the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, any talks could quickly collapse.

"The real test is what happens when the negotiations break down," said Cheng.
Like many protest leaders, he suspects the government is purposefully slowing discussions to drive a wedge between the activists and residents increasingly anxious for the protests to end.

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