Bailiffs on Thursday (Dec 11) started dismantling barricades at Hong Kong's main protest site after more than two months of pro-democracy rallies that demonstrators say have redefined the city's vexed relationship with Beijing.
Police have cordoned off the Admiralty protest site and the public cannot enter the area.
Police said they were preparing to move in after the bailiffs to clear the rest of the Admiralty protest camp, but hundreds of protesters remained, vowing the struggle would go on in some form. "This is not the end of the movement. The political awakening amongst the young is irreversible and we will fight on," pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said.
The protesters' encampment of tents, supply stations and art installations sprawls along a kilometre stretch of multi-lane highway through the heart of the business district. The bailiffs were serving court orders taken out by companies frustrated at the long-running disruption.
Many protesters had packed up their tents overnight or early Thursday morning, but some said they were willing to stand their ground. "I'm not tired (of the movement). I'll never be tired, only the government is tired," said 19-year-old student Alice.
The Admiralty site has been the focal point of the protest movement since rallies erupted in September, after China's Communist authorities insisted that candidates in Hong Kong's 2017 leadership election will have to be vetted by a loyalist committee.
Protesters say this will ensure the election of a pro-Beijing stooge, and their struggle has highlighted a litany of frustrations in the former British colony including a yawning income gap and lack of affordable housing.
Some in Admiralty expressed a sense of failure, after the authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing refused to give any concessions on political reform, but said that the occupation had changed Hong Kong for good. "I feel sad because we haven't achieved our mission, but I think there can be progress in the future," said 23-year-old welfare worker Dubi. "I think it's the start of something long-term."
Protesters were joined by more than 20 pro-democracy lawmakers and other prominent figures ahead of the police action. Media mogul Jimmy Lai, a fierce critic of Beijing, said he would stay at the site "until I am arrested".
"Definitely you will miss the people you have spent more than two months with, other than that we're looking forward to the next one," he said, referring to future actions for the movement.
Authorities have said they will take "resolute action" against those who resist the clearance which they say is being carried out to restore public order and reopen roads to traffic.
Student protest leaders have encouraged demonstrators to stay at the Admiralty site to face police but have urged non-violence. "At this time, we will not fight back and will resist passively so members of the public know that this group of people are participants of civil disobedience. They respect the rule of law and they are not a mob," student leader Alex Chow, of the Hong Kong Federation of Students said at the site Thursday.
There are fears that radical splinter groups will dig in for a final stand, following violent clashes outside government headquarters at the end of last month. But many said they did not want a confrontation.
"I'll probably leave just before the action because my job would be difficult if my name was recorded by police," said a 29-year-old surnamed Chow who works for a civil society group. At their height, the protests saw tens of thousands take to the street, but public support has waned in recent weeks. However, thousands gathered on Wednesday night for one final mass rally at the site, chanting: "We want true universal suffrage; we will fight to the end."
Student leaders and lawmakers addressed an emotional crowd while many took photos of the site before it is dismantled. "For me, the protest has been a good thing," said 28-year-old finance worker Jacqueline Au. "It's a wake-up call for the government in China that it's not that easy to impose the Chinese system in Hong Kong."
A group of about 70 protesters, including pan-democrats and tycoon Jimmy Lai are waiting to be arrested as they stage a last sit-in.
The clearing of the main protest site is expected to be a one day operation and 7,000 police are believe to be deployed during two shifts.
UPDATE AT 11AM:
One hour after the deadline to clear the Admiralty protest site, court bailiffs so far been met with little resistance as they dismantle barriers, but a large group of people remain in the area. Some say they will stay put despite warnings of arrests.
It has been slow going for the bailiffs as they have to remove barricades put together by tape, plastic ties and even bicycle locks.
The pro-democracy lawmakers and student leaders are still staging their peaceful sit-in.
Right now, police and bailiffs have yet to move into the actual main area of the protest site in Admiralty