Protesters packed their belongings in the occupied area near government headquarters in Hong Kong on Wednesday. CreditKin Cheung/Associated Press
HONG KONG — The police stood guard on Thursday as workers began tearing down barricades erected by protesters who have encircled the political heart of Hong Kong for more than 10 weeks, starting an operation to effectively end the pro-democracy street occupations that have laid bare divisions over the city’s political future.
Dozens of police and court bailiffs watched as the workers dismantled road barriers built from metal railings by demonstrators to protect their street camp in Admiralty, next to the city government offices.
There were no signs of resistance, but this was just the start of a painstaking police operation to clear the entire camp.
“So far, so good,” said Paul Tse, a pro-government lawyer and lawmaker who represented the school bus company that won a court injunction to clear part of the Admiralty protest site. “This is just the easy part,” he added.
The injunction applied to only a small part of the protest site, and after clearing that area, the police planned to move on and clear the entire street camp — a jumble of tents and art that even had its own classroom.
Protesters packed their belongings in the occupied area near government headquarters in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Credit Kin Cheung/Associated Press
After a night when thousands gathered to give a defiant and tearful farewell to the pro-democracy camp, many of the demonstrators busied themselves packing tents and other equipment before the police were to start clearing them out later in the day.
Some protesters vowed to stay and accept arrest as a show of resistance to the government, which has refused to offer concessions on how the city’s leader is elected. Yet most who stayed overnight in Admiralty, for nightlong celebrations and farewells, appeared resigned to a retreat.
“We’ve been here for two months, more than two months, and it’s time to move on,” said Koby Chan, a sales representative in his 20s who was among a group of protesters packing to leave the area that the police have said would be cleared first, in enforcement of a court injunction. “We’ll stop now, but that doesn’t mean we’re giving up. We’ll be back for sure.”
The area of the camp that the police have said they will clear first was largely empty on Thursday morning. “It’s just the beginning,” declared a banner that had gone up over a barricade.
Attendance had been shrinking at the protest camp in Admiralty, reduced by exhaustion, cold and disappointment. But thousands returned on Wednesday night to see the camp, representing one of the largest turnouts since the early days of the movement.
Families lined up to collect bracelets and other mementos made by volunteers; other people took pictures of themselves and the posters and art that have covered the camp. Many signed banners demanding democracy and left sticky notes on what is called the Lennon Wall, a side of a government building facing the camp that is covered in the notes.
Even before dawn broke on Thursday, the main camp bustled. Groups packed tents, preparing to leave, although hundreds of tents remained, as many demonstrators were still asleep.
Charlotte Chan, a 19-year-old nursing student, reclined on a sofa that had been used to block an escalator leading to the government offices, and she said that even those who wanted to keep up the demonstrations could see that they lacked support.
Whatever happens, the protests have exposed and widened political fissures, Hong Kong residents say. The government and its supporters have accused the protesters of reckless naïveté and of assisting in Western-sponsored subversion. Many protesters have said the Chinese government’s plans for election changes in the city would give Beijing the power to choose winners.
“The protest culture has changed,” said Alex Chow, a leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, which has been at the forefront of the protests. “The point is that the clearance will not solve the social problems.”
He as well as dozens of pro-democracy politicians and student leaders gathered for a show of unity. Many said they would stay in Admiralty until the police moved in to arrest them.
“We shall not resist nor retaliate,” Mr. Chow told the demonstrators as he stood over them on a ladder. “This is not a show of weakness or giving in, but doing this will give the police no reason to use excessive force on the protesters.”
At supply stations for the protesters, volunteers packed away safety masks, goggles and helmets stockpiled for possible confrontations with the police. Student leaders have said they do not want a repeat of the violence that erupted after the police demolished the other main protest camp, in the Mong Kok neighborhood, on Nov. 25.
Yet in recent weeks, the protesters have become increasingly split between those who favor peaceful resistance and a minority who argue that only escalating the protests, and risking confrontation, can win concessions.
A few have vowed to resist the police in Admiralty, said Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, a pro-democracy member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, who has sought to defuse confrontations during the protests.
The Admiralty protest camp sprang up on Sept. 28, when thousands of protesters seized the streets after a bungled police effort to disperse students with tear gas and pepper spray. The police hope that a tightly choreographed operation to clear it will avoid such misfires.
At a brief news conference as the clearance operation began, Kwok Pak-chung, a police senior superintendent, urged protesters to leave peacefully. Alan Leong, a prominent lawyer and a leader of the pro-democratic Civic Party, said in an interview that he planned to stay and face arrest. “Usually I would serve only my clients in the cell, but this time around I would be in the cell myself,” he said.
Alan Wong contributed reporting. A version of this article appears in print on December 11, 2014, on page A17 of the New York edition with the headline: Workers in Hong Kong Begin Dismantling Main Protest Camp.