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Hong Kong Protesters Make Solemn Retreat As Authorities Move In


Protests turned violent overnight in Hong Kong. A group of masked demonstrators tried to break into the city's legislative council building. The clash came after a strikingly peaceful day. Authorities are trying to wind down demonstrations, which are in their eighth week. And joining us now from Hong Kong is NPR's Frank Langfitt.

Frank, this sounds like a pretty dramatic turn of events. What happened?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It was. It was really surprising. The day began with protesters actually complying with a court injunction to clear a part of a road and sidewalk around the main protest camp here in downtown Hong Kong, and demonstrators actually helped move the tents and the barricades. Then overnight some protesters - perhaps they were angry that other demonstrators didn't put up more of a fight - they broke windows and they tried to break into a government building. And police, very early in the morning, forced them back with pepper spray and with batons.

BLOCK: We mentioned that these protests are now in their eighth week. Have the demands of the demonstrators stayed the same?

LANGFITT: They have. I mean what they've been asking for is democratic and open elections. They feel they were promised this by Beijing in 1997 at the handover to China when Hong Kong handed over to China. And they expected that in 2017 they'd be able to elect their own chief executive here in Hong Kong.

China, though, really wants de facto veto over the candidates. And they see if they don't have that, that that's a threat to the power of the Communist Party back in Beijing. And there's a fear that - especially if they got a chief executive here who didn't like the Communist Party - it could be a real headache. So from the government's perspective, there's just no room for negotiation.

BLOCK: So if there's no room for negotiation, where do you figure the protests go from here?

LANGFITT: Well, that's an enormous question for the protesters. Frankly, I think they're in the midst of a crisis. It's important to remember, these are the most sustained pro-democracy protests on Chinese soil since 1989, the Tiananmen Square movement.

But the guys who've been here - the protesters have been out in the streets now for coming up on two months, but they don't have anything politically to show for it. And now we've seen a survey from last weekend that shows that about two thirds of people in Hong Kong, even those who support the aspirations of the protesters, think the protesters should frankly pack up and go home.

The problem that they face is there's no clear face-saving way out of this for them. They also don't have one clear leader. It's not even clear if some of the protest's leaders here told demonstrators to go home that they actually would pull out. And certainly, as we saw last night, there certainly appear to be some die-hards who are willing to continually clash with police to hold their ground.

BLOCK: But at the same time, as you mentioned, Frank, there were some protesters who were complying, you know, with taking down their protest sites. Is there a sense of when the Hong Kong government might move to clear all the protest sites - to really quash this rebellion?

LANGFITT: It's probably going to be bit by bit because, particularly the one downtown, is huge. There are over 2,000 tents there. The court - the government has a court injunction to clear some roads in a satellite protest site in another part of the city. This is a gritty neighborhood called Mong Kok. Local press are saying that could happen as early as tomorrow, but honestly this has been a guessing game. It's very hard to know what and when the police will make a move.

It could also be kind of hard to clear that site as well. They did it once before and it was quickly reoccupied by thousands of people. And Mong Kok's frankly a rough neighborhood. Protesters have clashed with some of their opponents there in the streets. They tend to sometimes throw things at eachother. And so trying to clear that protest site could get violent as well.

BLOCK: OK. Well, we'll be checking in with you as this story evolves. NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from Hong Kong. Frank, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 18, 2014 at 10:00 PM MST
In a previous audio version of this story, we incorrectly stated that the protest was happening in Aberdeen, a Hong Kong village. In fact, the protest was in Hong Kong's Admiralty district.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.