After a flare-up of violence between Hong Kong police and pro-democracy demonstrators Saturday, government officials and protest leaders alike warned that the situation was heading toward a breaking point.
Demonstrators remained encamped around government headquarters in the Admiralty district and had reoccupied streets in the dense commercial Mong Kok area. Police had cleared the Mong Kok sit-in early Friday, but demonstrators returned later in the day and took back control of several key streets, clashing with officers throughout the night.
Speaking out after 26 people were arrested and dozens injured in Mong Kok early Saturday, Hong Kong Police Commissioner Andy Tsang Wai-hung said police had been "extremely tolerant" and that protesters' increasingly "illegal acts are undermining the rule of law."
"These violations are ... destroying Hong Kong," he said, adding that schools, businesses and hospitals had been disrupted. If police fail to "uphold the law ... who is there to benefit? What is there to gain?" Tsang said. If police fail to carry out their duties, he added, the entire society would suffer.
Tensions seemed to ease a bit by late Saturday. In Admiralty, the police presence was minimal and more and more tents had sprung up, giving the encampment a rooted feel. Some tents have even adopted improvised addresses such as "Umbrella Square Tent 30" or "Fighting Lodge No. 1."
In Mong Kok, where a few thousand demonstrators were massed, about 70 officers were on duty, some carrying batons. Demonstrators jeered at counter-protesters, shouting profanities and urging them to "go back to the Mainland," a suggestion that they were doing Beijing's bidding.
"We need to occupy here to have more bargaining power in future dialogue with the government," said Paula Wong, who was at Mong Kok on Saturday evening. "I saw pictures about reclaiming the protest area in Mong Kok and I knew I needed to come; the more people [who are] here, the safer we are."
Government representatives and leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the lead protest groups, are scheduled to meet Tuesday for a first round of dialogue. Exactly what the talks will cover remains unclear.
Protesters have been agitating for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to resign and for the reversal of a decision by the standing committee of China's National People's Congress to limit candidates to his post in the city's 2017 election. But Leung has rejected both demands.
"Hong Kong people have been waiting for democracy for more than 10 years, but the situation is just getting worse and worse," said a 22-year-old student surnamed Lin who was in Mong Kok on Saturday afternoon. "Now Beijing wants us to accept a false election, I don't think we can take it any more."
Occupy Central with Love and Peace, another main protest group, released a statement Saturday condemning the government's move to clear protesters out of Mong Kok early Friday, opening streets after more than two weeks of sit-ins. The action, the group said, further strained relations between police and the public.
"The government's use of 'removing obstructing materials' as an excuse to clear zones will only push the resentment from occupiers and citizens who support them into a vicious circle and dead end," the statement said.
Sociology professor Chan Kin Man, one of the three founders of Occupy Central, said protesters did not want to undermine the rule of law. The problem, he wrote in the local newspaper Mingpao, is that police have been left to deal with a political problem.
"It's a problem with the government's response and should be solved by political means," he said.
Violating the law with nonviolent protest, he said, is a way to make clear to society at large why democracy and universal suffrage are crucial for Hong Kong's long-term governance.
But he warned his compatriots that things were spiraling out of control. "Let's think: Are we falling into the trap of those who wanted to suppress the movement with public discontent?" he wrote. "In the face of vigorous offensives, would we lose control and respond with violence? If we do, the moral foundation of the whole movement would collapse."
Carol Jones, a professor at Britain's University of Wolverhampton and author of the book "Criminal Justice in Hong Kong," said police handling of the demonstrations -- including the initial use of tear gas on Sept. 28 and then what she described as a failure to protect peaceful protesters against violence from Triad gangs -- "has probably damaged public confidence in the police for a generation."
"My own view is that there are probably many in the police force who have been reluctant participants in the use of force against the protesters," she added. "I suspect that many share the sentiments and hopes of Occupy Central, though in the present climate to say so would be to incur accusations of being 'unpatriotic' or 'subversive.'"
Hong Kong Legislative Council Chairman Jasper Tsang Yok-sing condemned those who broke through police lines in Mong Kok late Friday and early Saturday.
"Some people deliberately confront the police ... and use dangerous goods to set up roadblocks," he said. "This is beyond the limits of civil disobedience. I can't see what kind of ideas they want to express."
For the first time since protests began in late September, police on Saturday gave an estimate of crowds, saying they calculated that 9,000 people had massed in Mong Kok late Friday and early Saturday.
Police said they arrested 23 men and three women, ages 21 to 52, on charges including common assault, criminal damage, disorderly conduct in a public place, resisting arrest, hindering police officers performing their duties and possession of weapons.
Bell Lee, a social worker, said she came to Mong Kok to offer free consultation for youths and was prepared to be arrested. "There are students who feel helpless when facing such violent clashes, so I came here to help them. Students need to know why they come here, and be aware of the consequences."
Hui and Ap are special correspondents. Times staff writer Julie Makinen in Beijing contributed to this report.