Others continued to occupy main streets in the Chinese-controlled city, where they have camped for nearly a month in protest against a central government plan that would give Hong Kong people the chance to vote for their own leader in 2017 but tightly restrict the candidates to Beijing loyalists.
A wide chasm separates the protesters and the government, which has labelled their actions illegal and repeatedly said their demand for open nominations is impossible under the laws of the former British colony.
“I’m here hoping the government will listen. If they don’t listen we will come out again and again to fight for our basic, grassroots nomination right,” said protester Wing Chan, who took part in the march.
Expectations had been low for a breakthrough in Tuesday’s cordial, televised talks which pitted five of the city’s most senior officials against five tenacious but poised student leaders wearing black T-shirts.
Protesters were unhappy about what they felt was a lack of substantive concessions. Andy Lau, a 19-year-old college student, said now was the time to step things up.
“I think it is time to seriously consider escalating the movement, such as expanding our occupation to many more places to pressure the government to really face and answer our demands,” he said.
Demonstrators marching to the home the city’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, repeated calls for him to step down. Many were angry at remarks he made this week that more representative democracy was unacceptable in part because it would result in poorer people having more say in politics.
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows it wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms and specifies universal suffrage as an ultimate goal. But Beijing is wary about copycat demands for reform on the mainland eroding the Communist Party’s power.
Leung told reporters before Tuesday’s talks that the panel that picks candidates for the 2017 election could be made “more democratic.” That was first indication of a possible concession.
The end-game for the protests remains unclear. Hong Kong’s high court issued injunctions this week barring protesters from blocking roads, but the police appeared unwilling or incapable of carrying them out.
On Wednesday afternoon, a handful of taxi drivers who had filed the injunction turned up at the Mong Kok demonstration zone, on the Kowloon side of the picture-postcard harbor, and started to pull apart makeshift barricades.
Police intervened to calm the situation and make space between the two sides.
The use of tear gas by police early in the protests backfired, sparking outrage among many in Hong Kong and helping to swell the ranks of the demonstrators.
Since then, police have occasionally used pepper spray and batons but they have not tried to fully clear the streets.
The government appears to be in a quandary: unable to make concessions but wary that a crackdown would only exacerbate the protests. Analysts say the government is biding its time.
The unprecedented open debate on democracy on Tuesday night reflected a shift in the government’s approach to engage rather than shun a movement that has lasted beyond most people’s expectations.
The officials offered the prospect of discussions about how the nominating committee that will pick candidates for leader is formed, and said they would send a report to Beijing on the situation and the protesters’ demands.
After the meeting, disappointed students said they had yet to decide whether to hold more talks.
“It is very obvious why many people are still staying here tonight,” student leader Yvonne Leung told thousands of cheering demonstrators at the tent-filled main protest site in the Admiralty district, near government offices, on Tuesday.
“It is because we absolutely have no idea what they were talking about . . . The government did not give us a concrete reply and direction in the dialogue today. We are absolutely very disappointed about this.”