Protesters offered a “friendly gesture” on Friday, partially reopening the blocked Tolo Highway, but other major roads and tunnels remained impassable as the transport chaos that has plagued the city entered a fifth day.
However, the move came with conditions attached, as activists at Chinese University issued an ultimatum, giving the government 24 hours to guarantee that District Council elections would go ahead on November 24 as planned.
The announcement was made at a 3am press conference, and was not universally popular, with the university’s student union appearing to distance itself from the move. In a statement a few hours later, the union said it was not aware of the election demand, and said it had held its own meetings with people at the school.
It was not immediately clear if the road had in fact been reopened, with the Transport Department saying “clearance work of Tolo Highway is being conducted”, and drivers complained police had stopped them from using the road.
The softening stance from some protesters came after four days of continuous clashes with police as they blocked roads and paralysed public transport, leaving countless Hongkongers stranded, and causing the closure of universities, schools and kindergartens, as well as some businesses.
“The blockade of Tolo Highway for the past few days has brought inconvenience to residents, especially the elderly, so we hope to offer a friendly gesture,” said one of the three representatives at the press conference.
“Our target is the government, not Hong Kong residents.”
An essential artery in Hong Kong, the highway links the New Territories with the busy Kowloon district where many residents work.
But a bridge crossing it has been the site of some of the fiercest clashes between protesters at the university and police this week, and other major roads remain closed, including the Hung Hom Cross-Harbour Tunnel, which has been petrol bombed on numerous occasions this week, and Nathan Road in Mong Kok.
Public transport has not returned to normal either, with MTR stations closed, and hundreds of bus routes cancelled. And on Friday morning the East Rail line was again suspended after petrol bombs were thrown onto the track at Kowloon Tong station.
A year one student protester who identified himself as Matt, 20, said he had been “defending” the No 2 bridge at Chinese University since Monday, and took part in the discussion as to whether to reopen the highway.
He disagreed with the student union’s statement, and said it might be “trying to divide the protesters”.
“[Protesters have discussed] the possibility that by opening one single lane on both sides of the Tolo Highway, each lane represents one of the five demands, therefore by putting out this friendly gesture, they hope the government would agree to release all those arrested in the protests [since June] and an independent commission of inquiry will be set up,” he said
Meanwhile, the Citizens’ Press Conference, which has held regular media sessions for the protesters’ side, called on Hongkongers to continue the fight “while we have the upper hand”, stressing the general strike would continue into Friday.
On social media, reactions to the decision were mixed. One commenter on Facebook wrote: “I have never been so happy to be stuck in traffic, add oil”, but another said: “while you maintained the ‘leaderless’ model, those three frontliners have started ‘leading’”, referring to the three representatives who had announced the decision to reopen the highway.
Despite the transport disruptions, the situation at Chinese University and Hong Kong Polytechnic, which is by the Hung Hom Cross Harbour Tunnel, remained calm, with protesters resting at both universities early on Friday morning.
A 19-year-old psychology student, who gave his name as KK, practised how to attack police with a baton while guarding one of the PolyU entrances.
“I bought the shield and baton set from Taobao back in July. I’m sure suppliers won’t deliver these to Hong Kong any more,” he said. “My semester ended earlier, while I was rushing to finish my term papers. I’m not afraid of failing my classes or getting arrested. It is what it is for our generation.”