The standoff between police and protesters in Hong Kong has left either side trying to catch the other off guard.
Shortly before dawn on Friday, the police began removing tangled assemblages of bamboo rods, trash bins, fences, and scrap materials that had been blocking a six-lane thoroughfare in the Mong Kok district on a moment's notice, downsizing the occupied area to less than a hundred-meter stretch half its original width. MTR Corporation, the city's underground railway, dispatched cleaning staff to take down protest signs at entrances and exits. Demonstrators managed to preserve a supply station and a handful of tents.
At nightfall, police officers deployed pepper spray and batons after tussles broke out. Crowds of protesters and pedestrians swelled in nearby streets and clogged the sidewalks, spilling into the roads and encircling the police. Amid the upheaval, protesters and vehicles jockeyed to reclaim the roads as the officers continued to fence off the streets for traffic. Late at night, demonstrators re-occupied much of the area and scuffled with officers.
The clearance operations started earlier in the week in the more moderate occupation sites of Admiralty and Causeway Bay. Early on Wednesday, protesters who reoccupied areas that had been cleared of barricades in Admiralty were pepper-sprayed and arrested after they retreated to the park outside the government headquarters.
The alleged beating of social worker and pro-democracy activist Ken Tsang by police after he poured liquid on officers — which was caught on camera and later revised when it aired on a pro-government channel — further sparked anger among protesters and pro-democracy supporters.
More pepper spray was used without warning in the early hours of Thursday when a group of protesters tried to prevent the arrest of a protester who had thrown a water bottle across the road that struck a police vehicle.
A senior city superintendent denied that authorities had undertaken a mass clearance of protest encampments, asserting that the police were merely "removing obstacles" and allowing traffic to resume on the main roads.
As the level of police aggression escalated this week, protesters have been scrambling to erect makeshift barricades in assorted areas that aren't occupied by demonstrators. A protester described the increasingly fluid contours of the occupation to VICE News as "an amoeba."
"It's a tactic to disrupt police strategy," said Cyrus Chan, an interior designer who was carrying materials for the barriers, as he explained how impromptu roadblocks in one area can distract police from focusing on others.
The clearance operations coincided with the government's announcement on Thursday that it was willing to revisit talks with student representatives, who want Hong Kong's government to reject a plan that would grant Beijing wide control over the city's 2017 election for chief executive. Beijing will vet each candidate under the current plan, which democracy advocates say violates the 1997 handover agreement with Britain, Hong Kong's former colonial authority.
Negotiations were previously canceled after Chief Secretary Carrie Lam insisted that constructive dialogue was not possible as long as students pledged to remain in the streets if their demands are not met.
"Let me draw a line between the possible and the impossible," Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying remarked to reporters on Thursday. "The central authority [in Beijing] has said clearly that it will not retract the decision. The most constructive thing the Hong Kong government can offer the students is sit down and listen to the students about what we can do together within the framework."
As Hong Kong authorities move to rein in and dismantle encampments, the tense relations between police and protesters have only worsened. Joshua Wong, the charismatic 18-year-old leader of the student activist group Scholarism, said that officers and thugs aren't any different, but asked protesters to refrain from hurling insults at them.
Some citizens have defended police actions and noted the physical and mental exhaustion of officers on the front line, while others find their increasingly hostile and "extrajudicial" approaches toward protesters inexcusable.
Given the contentious interplay between police and demonstrators, it's somewhat ironic that Officer Steve Hui Chun-tak, chief superintendent of the police public relations bureau, has won an affectionate following among protesters for his catchphrases and agreeable manners in daily press briefings.
"It shows that many Hong Kong people aren't that radical, or that they are using this 'positive image' of the police force as a form of gentle mockery," Althea Suen, a university student studying social work, told VICE News.
The protesters' rapid adjustment of tactics in the face of police clearances reflects an uncertainty over the movement's next stage, and is intensifying debates within the movement between those who support the idea of having some form of leadership to coordinate actions and the many who are opposed to it.
"Each day, I don't know what will happen the next," Vivian Li, a university student who has been on strike since the student protest began on September 22, told VICE News. "If someone breaks into the front line, I won't be surprised. If no one does, I won't be surprised either."
Follow Elaine Yu on Twitter: @yuenok