"This is definitely not the end—we've never set a timeframe for how long this should go on. It's normal for people to go home, to come and go," said Alex Chow, one of the student leaders. "It's up to the government now. This is the first step, but the pressure has to continue."
Hong Kong has been rocked by a massive weeklong street protest against China's decision to screen all nominees in the first direct elections for Hong Kong's leader, promised by Beijing for 2017. The activists want open nominations and the resignation of the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who has refused to step down.
The previous weekend, police fired tear gas and pepper spray on unarmed protesters, prompting some to defend themselves with umbrellas and homemade masks—an image that gave rise to the movement's unofficial name, the "Umbrella Movement." The police violence galvanized public support for the demonstrations, and on both weekends, tens of thousands of protesters had turned out in the streets.
Anger simmers in Hong Kong after protest camp attacks
But on Monday the numbers were down to just a couple hundred in the main protest site of Admiralty and in the Mong Kok area, where some scuffles broke out over the weekend between protests and residents.
About 25 protesters, mostly students, refused to budge from their site outside the government headquarters, and some say they plan to stay for as long as they can.
Many remaining protesters were undeterred by the dwindling number of participants, but they admitted they cannot afford to neglect their studies for much longer.
"I think the government is waiting for us to get up. They always say the protests must end and are trying to use violence to stop it," said Jackie Ho, 18. "But I think they just want to scare us."
The protesters' youthfulness and the movement's lack of central leadership has been part of its appeal. Lawmakers and pro-democracy politicians have played almost no role in the movement, which began as Occupy Central -- a campaign founded by law professor Benny Tai last year. But Tai and other Occupy leaders have been overtaken by several different student and grass-root political groups, which have provided much of the coordination and planning.
"The credit goes to the students who brought so many people to occupy the government offices," said Martin Lee, a veteran pro-democracy lawmaker in the city.