Hong Kong on Friday morning shuttered its central government offices, telling the roughly 3,000 civil servants based there to go home or work from other departments, as protests calling for deeper democracy entered a sixth day.
There were also scuffles as protesters refused to allow through two trucks carrying supplies for police guarding the office of Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung through their lines, although the stand-off remained peaceful.
In a statement, the government said: “As the access roads leading to the Central Government Offices, Tamar are now blocked, the Administration Wing announced that today the CGO will be temporarily closed.”
This followed a tense night in which Mr Leung agreed to hold talks with pro-democracy activists over China’s controversial plan for universal suffrage but refused to accept their call for his resignation.
Students had threatened to occupy government buildings if Mr Leung did not resign on Thursday. During the day, hundreds of students blocked the entrance to the road leading to his office, and hinted that they would storm the building at some point.
Minutes before the midnight deadline for him to resign, Mr Leung announced that he had appointed Carrie Lam, head of the civil service, to talk to the students.
“I will not resign, because I have to continue my work on universal suffrage,” said Mr Leung, prompting a loud chorus of students to shout out “bulls**t” in Cantonese.
Earlier, tensions had mounted on the streets near the government headquarters as large numbers of police, some with riot shields, massed inside barricades that they had erected outside the chief executive’s office where protesters gathered.
Photos circulated on Twitter of police carrying tear gas and rubber bullets to an area near his office sparked widespread concern that a confrontation was in the offing. During the evening, protesters donned goggles, cling film and other protective gear to protect themselves from any gas attack.
While many students were unhappy that Mr Leung had not resigned, his concession to allow talks appeared to ease tensions – much to the relief of those students who worried that storming his office would erase the goodwill the peaceful protests had generated.
When some students ignored the police and tried to block another road, dozens of others rushed to form human chains along the side of the road to prevent them.
The stand-off between the authorities and demonstrators calling for the resignation of Mr Leung had continued for a fifth day ahead of the midnight deadline given by demonstrators for Mr Leung to stand down.
The huge protests have been going on since Sunday as crowds flocked to join the democracy movement calling on China to reverse course on a controversial plan for electoral reform in the territory. The demonstrations pose the most serious problem for the Communist party since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989.
Earlier on Thursday Beijing for the first time publicly backed Mr Leung, accusing the protesters of spreading “chaos” in the Asian financial hub.
The People’s Daily, the Communist party mouthpiece, said China “fully trusts” Mr Leung and was “very satisfied” with him. State media has previously backed the Hong Kong government but without naming the chief executive.
On Thursday night students blocked a road to Mr Leung’s office as they prepared to escalate their campaign, while the road to the chief executive’s office in the Central district was cordoned off at both ends by the police.
On several occasions, a police officer asked the crowd to back away from the barricades but said the police had no plans to use tear gas at that moment. When protesters shouted “explain, explain”, referring to the reports of sightings of tear gas, she refused to answer. The police had earlier warned of “serious consequences” if demonstrators occupied government buildings.
Before Mr Leung spoke, Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old leader of one of the student groups, addressed the masses of protesters by saying: “The only one who wants us to attack is CY Leung so that he can use tear gas.” He and another key student leader then urged the protesters to remain calm.
Earlier in the evening as tensions mounted for the first time since Monday, Tony Wong, an 18-year-old high school student wearing goggles and a poncho, said students were worried because the police presence had increased significantly.
“I am very scared that they will attack us,” said Mr Wong.
Yung Kin-shing, 30, said he hoped the students would not destroy the peaceful protest movement by forcibly entering the building. “I think the government is waiting for the chance to use their weapons,” said Mr Yung. “I just feel, don’t give them any chance.
Allan Zeman, a well-known businessman, on Thursday afternoon said the students would jeopardise the support they had created through peaceful protests if they escalated the campaign. “Some of the students are talking about taking over some government offices and escalating the kind of love festival that we have had up to now [which] would be a disaster and would turn public opinion against the students,” said Mr Zeman.
Some students were said to be having second thoughts after seeing the editorial in the People’s Daily that suggested that Beijing was firmly behind Mr Leung.
Human Rights Watch called on the Hong Kong government to avoid excessive force in dealing with the protests. Sophie Richardson, China director at HRW, said Mr Leung should “show the kind of tolerance for peaceful protest for which Hong Kong is known, not the intolerance that we see for it in the mainland”.
Additional reporting by Julie Zhu and Josh Noble