Hong Kong Government, Students Battle for Public Opinion

Frustration Grows as Neither Side Appears to Be Pushing to End Standoff

From truck drivers to newsstand owners to travelers staying in posh hotels, people in Hong Kong are struggling with the inconveniences caused by student protesters blocking roads across the city.

The Hong Kong government is banking on this discontent to turn public opinion against protesters and help get them off the streets. Students are fighting back, spending their money to support shops near the protest sites and distributing leaflets saying, “Why we are disturbing you.”

Flier that Scholarism, a student group made up of mostly high-school students, is handing out, titled “Why we are disturbing you” Scholarism

On Friday night, crowds swelled by the thousands in downtown Hong Kong to listen to speeches from organizers, signaling the pro-democracy movement still has momentum after calls for a big rally. But the test will be this weekend, and whether numbers remain strong into a third week of demonstrations or dwindle as they have in recent days.

“A lot of people ask us how many days will you still disturb the lives of Hong Kong people?” said 20-year-old Isaac Cheung, a student at University of Hong Kong who estimated he had spent 10 nights outside supporting the movement with his girlfriend. “It’s not decided by us but by the government. If they don’t respond to our needs, we’ll keep coming out.”

Workers head home, walking through the protest site, on Friday. Pro-democracy activists continue to occupy streets around the financial district. Getty Images

On Saturday morning, hundreds of demonstrators who had slept on the streets at the main protest area emerged from their tents and sat in the shade. At the nearby Admiralty subway station, a small breakfast buffet was available and volunteers carried sandwiches to people sitting by their tents.

With 5.8 kilometers (3.6 miles) of road blocked in three city districts for two weeks and few protesters manning the barricades, frustration is growing that neither side is pushing to end the standoff.

The battle for public opinion in Hong Kong between the government and protesters took on new intensity after the No. 2 city official, Carrie Lam, canceled the first formal talks between the two sides, though the chances of a resolution were minimal even if they had met.

Prospects of any breakthrough on the talks have dimmed, as Ms. Lam, along with three top government officials, left to attend a weekend business forum in the neighboring city of Guangzhou. The delegation will be joined Sunday evening by the city’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.

The departures were announced Friday in a sign that the administration was taking a harder line.

The city’s truck drivers have said that if the two sides don’t reach a deal, they will remove the barricades themselves on Wednesday. “Having democracy or not is not the biggest issue. But making money is,” said Peter Tse, chairman of Hong Kong Guangdong Transportation Association Ltd. “By blocking the roads for so long, it makes more people dislike you.”

He said truck drivers have on average spent around 1,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$129) more on fuel in the past two weeks because of traffic and longer routes to make deliveries.

The effort to get the support of the majority of Hong Kong’s seven million people is tricky for both sides. Even if people get mad at the protesters, it doesn’t mean they support the government. Mr. Leung, the city’s chief executive, is deeply unpopular, especially after tear gas was used against protesters, and anti-Beijing sentiment runs strong in Hong Kong.

Admiralty, mid-protest. Henry Williams/The Wall Street Journal

A map showing small businesses in Mong Kok.Support Small Shops Facebook group

But the city could overcome those issues by saying it is reopening the streets in response to public pressure and to fulfill its obligation to maintain order.

For the students, the tear-gas episode has gained them sympathy, but few people believe they will reach their goal of getting Mr. Leung fired or getting Beijing to go back on its decision to allow only preapproved candidates to run for the chief-executive position. “Asking C.Y. Leung to step down or Beijing to withdraw its decision is impossible,” Mr. Tse said.

Students are also worried about the perception that they are lounging around, while the rest of the city is working. In Mong Kok, one of the three protest sites, people have brought beds to the street, and last night a group had a ping-pong table, a mah-jongg table and a setup for making a hot-pot dinner. Students asked the group to stop. “We don’t want citizens already annoyed by the protests to use it as an excuse to suppress us further,” said Serena Lee.

At a newsstand just a few steps away, business had dropped 30%, but the owner was sympathetic to the students. “I am old and don’t bother about these things. I simply want to have a stable and decent life after retirement. But what about the kids? Do they have a future?” said Ms. Ng, who declined to give her first name. She added, “If they don’t voice now, when?”

In Mong Kok and another protest site in Causeway Bay, protesters have maps of local businesses they are trying to patronize. Business owners say sales are down as much as 40%. The group also maintains a shared document listing the names of businesses that have supported the protesters.

The posh Mandarin Oriental hotel in Central, where rooms start at $600 a night, is completely surrounded by blocked roads, forcing guests to be dropped off at the chain’s other nearby hotel. While the staff will carry their luggage, guests must walk about 400 yards to get to their hotel. “It’s an inconvenience but we have no choice,” said Eric Huygen, a guest from Amsterdam who stayed for three days with his wife.

The city’s taxi drivers, who stopped traffic earlier this week to protest lost business, say they will also remove barriers themselves though they won’t say when. “On the first few days, we didn’t mind that much. Sacrifice, right?” said To Sun-tong, director of the Motor Transport Workers General Union Taxi Driver Branch. “I hope they can retreat now as they have already made some progress,” he said.

There could be room for compromise. The students have debated reopening Queensway, a major road into Central and both the truck and taxi drivers say that would make their lives easier. “Once the major artery is clear,” Mr. To said. “Other smaller streets would follow.” On Friday, students allowed some stranded trams to temporarily run along Queensway so additional service could be restored.

A man walks in a tunnel in an area blocked by pro-democracy protesters around Hong Kong’s government headquarters on Friday. Reuters

While some people are griping, the protests have been tame by global standards, with few injuries and almost no property damage. Commuters have lost some bus routes and the city’s double-decker tram isn’t running the length of the island, but for most Hong Kong residents, the protests have been barely visible.

For the transportation companies the impact has been mixed. Tram usage is down 50% and at bus companies operating on the main Hong Kong island, which have suffered from canceled and changed routes, passenger volume is down 25% to 40%. But at the MTR, the underground rail system that has become the best way to get around in some parts of town, traffic is up, though exact figures haven’t been compiled. The company has added 400 additional staff to the usual 2,800 front-line operations staff.

Some cities adapt to protest occupations. In Bangkok, antigovernment demonstrators locked down large swaths of the central city for months in early 2014, blocking roads and even setting up concert stages. But while many locals were enraged and business dropped off considerably in some areas, in many ways the protests became part of the landscape of the city, with most business carrying on as usual.

—Chester Yung and Prudence Ho contributed to this article.

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