Hong Kong Enters a Standoff Over Barricades as Protests Ebb

HONG KONG — The pro-democracy demonstrations that paralyzed blocks of downtown Hong Kong for nearly two weeks have dissipated to a few hardy thousand, but for reasons many residents cannot comprehend, the streets are still impassable.

The battle for territory between the student-led pro-democracy demonstrators and the Beijing-backed city government has come down to a strange standoff over the metal barricades themselves, set up on the streets and then virtually abandoned by protesters.

The students insist they remain, while the government is afraid to touch them, fearing a backlash that will inflame and re-energize the protests.

Senior government officials “don’t want to give them any excuse that the government is taking things by force,” said a person involved in the government’s decision-making, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate political nature of the situation.

“With any action by the government in this area, they will call out people to resist, and then there would be another incident, and we don’t want to do that,” the person said. “They can call out people in a minute.”

The government learned this lesson when it sent the riot police to quell a protest of several thousand students on Sept. 28. The images of the police firing tear gas and pepper spray at the students prompted tens of thousands of angry residents to join them the next day.

The demonstrators commandeered the waist-high steel grilles that had been left outside by the police in anticipation of the protest, lashed them together and sealed off a network of major arteries, mainly in the Admiralty district, including long stretches of two eight-lane avenues. They limited traffic to delivery vehicles, fire trucks and ambulances. All other traffic above ground in these areas, including passenger cars and the city’s 110-year-old tram system, was shut down.

The blockaded territory far exceeds that taken by the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, which took over a small park in Lower Manhattan. A rough parallel would be if protesters in New York shut down Times Square and Columbus Circle in Manhattan, along with a chunk of Downtown Brooklyn across the East River, as the police stood by, too worried to clear the streets.

A week ago, the roadway inside the barricades was packed with protesters. Now it is nearly empty for at least a quarter-mile.

Most barricades are guarded by only a handful of people, and some by none at all.

Ellen Ng, 59, a retired lecturer in management, was one of two people midafternoon Wednesday guarding a barricade on the eastbound four lanes of Queensway in Admiralty, an area studded by skyscrapers and hotels.

With the heart of the protest blocks away at the government buildings near the waterfront, Ms. Ng said the continued closing of Queensway and the tram, which has upended the commutes of thousands, made no sense.

“I asked, ‘Why this isn’t reopened?’ ” she said. “But, of course, I don’t have the decision-making power.”

Instead, she is the advance guard in defending the structures.

On Wednesday afternoon, after a group of transportation company executives crossed the barricades on Queensway, hoping to persuade the students to open the road, she ran to meet them. Other volunteers called for backup on walkie-talkies.

By the time the executives had walked one block up the road, a platoon of about 100 students came in from their right flank, from the direction of the main protest area, filling the formerly empty roadway.

“This is the front line, the defensive line for protecting the students inside,” said one volunteer, Endy Chan, 25, a social worker who was wearing a Captain America tank top and jean shorts. “We are foreseeing the police will come through this road.”

It is the same story at the other major protest site across Victoria Harbor in Kowloon. There, Lee Yik-lun, 21, a worker for a pharmaceutical factory, has been stationed at the barricades at the bustling junction of Mong Kok Road and Nathan Road.

“Some men tried to destroy them yesterday afternoon,” he said. “All we did was shout out, ‘Someone’s touching our barricades!’ Then a hundred protesters literally ran here to protect them.”

When asked about the possibility of removing them, the chief spokesman of the Hong Kong police, Hui Chun-tak, voiced caution at a news conference on Wednesday.

“Before taking action, the police must review the overall picture and do a risk analysis,” he said. “We have deployed staff to ask protesters to remove barriers and release lanes for emergency vehicles.”

The government’s reluctance to have the police haul away even abandoned barriers that are blocking streets, much less detain protesters, means that the roadway stalemate could continue for days, the person involved in the government’s decision-making said.

The government’s long-term calculation is that continued disruption to everyday life here will reduce public support for the protesters and benefit pro-Beijing political parties in future elections.

Well aware of the inconveniences the blockades across Hong Kong have caused, the 17-year-old activist Joshua Wong said that the student group Scholarism was to distribute leaflets on Wednesday night to apologize to people affected by the traffic chaos and to explain that “the short-term occupation of roads is for the long-term fruits of political reform, of realizing true universal suffrage.”

Nicholas Lee, 52, a renovation worker in Mong Kok, said the blockade had impinged on commerce of all sorts, from hardware stores to the district’s brothels.

“Even the mainland prostitutes and pimps are off the streets,” he said. “And I’m sure that over there at the Goldfish Market” — so named for the many aquariums selling goldfish and tropical fish — “the goldfish are probably swimming backstrokes now.”