A key media mogul who has strongly backed Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests urged demonstrators Thursday to leave the streets, saying a temporary retreat would be a strategic move in wake of recent clashes with police that have further divided public opinion.
Next media boss Jimmy Lai, who runs the popular Apple Daily newspaper, suggested that protest leaders set a deadline for government officials to respond to their demands regarding rules for the territory's 2017 chief executive election. If the authorities fail to meet the deadline, Lai said, protesters should resume their sit-ins.
"It has been more than 50 days now since the protests began, and I believe this is a long battle to fight for true universal suffrage," Lai said in an interview with The Times. "But if the street protests drag on, we will lose the support from the majority of Hong Kong people."
The most recent poll conducted by Hong Kong University's public opinion program found that an overwhelming majority of Hong Kongers want the sit-ins to come to an end. More than 83% of 513 respondents said they think the protesters should go home, with only 13% saying they should stay in the streets.
Lai, one of the movement's most vocal backers, urged the Hong Kong Federation of Students, a leading protest group, to consider how to unite various factions to force the government to respond.
But the federation and another student activist group, Scholarism, reiterated that they intend to remain at the three protest sites until they are arrested or until the government responds to their demands.
Scholarism leader Joshua Wong said Thursday it was not yet time to pack up and go home but that student protest organizers had to find an alternative way to continue the push for "true universal suffrage."
Apple Daily has consistently published articles critical of mainland Chinese Communist authorities, who issued the election guidelines that touched off the protests. Lai has been a frequent visitor to the main encampment in the Admiralty district, home to the government headquarters complex. Lai was attacked last week by a group of men who threw bags of rotten animal organs at him.
Lai conceded it would be hard to persuade all protesters, particularly those in the Mong Kok neighborhood, to leave the streets. "This is a spontaneous movement. No one can persuade all protesters to go home," he said. He urged decision-making from the "bottom up."
Lai said he believed an incident this week – in which several young men rammed a metal barricade through a window of the Legislative Council complex – was an act of "deliberate violence" perpetrated by people who want the pro-democracy movement to fail.
"Some people want to turn the peaceful movement into a violent revolution, so that the protests will lose more support," said Lai. "I am worried about this."
Police arrested six men ages 18 to 24 on charges of destroying public property and attacking officers. Three officers were hurt in the melee.
Lai is not the only prominent voice urging protesters to retreat. One organizer of the Occupy Central movement, professor Chan Kin-man, has also appealed to the student leaders to consider finding other ways to fight for their cause as public fatigue with the protests has risen.
Special correspondent Hui reported from Hong Kong and Times staff writer Makinen from Beijing.