SHAFAQNA – Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters extended a blockade of Hong Kong streets on Tuesday, stockpiling supplies and erecting makeshift barricades ahead of what some fear may be a push by police to clear the roads before Chinese National Day. Riot police shot pepper spray and tear gas at protesters at the weekend but withdrew on Monday to ease tension as the ranks of demonstrators swelled. Protesters spent the night sleeping or holding vigil unharassed on normally busy roads in the global financial hub.
Throughout the night, rumors rippled through crowds of protesters that police were preparing to move in again. As the sun rose many remained wary, especially on the eve of Wednesday’s anniversary of the Communist Party’s foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
“Many powerful people from the mainland will come to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government won’t want them to see this, so the police must do something,” Sui-ying Cheng, 18, a freshman at Hong Kong University’s School of Professional and Continuing Education, said of the National Day holiday.
“We are not scared. We will stay here tonight. Tonight is the most important,” she said.
The protesters, mostly students, are demanding full democracy and have called on the city’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, to step down after Beijing a month ago ruled out free elections for Hong Kong’s leader, known as the Chief Executive, in 2017.
China rules Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” formula that accords the former British colony a degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, with universal suffrage set as an eventual goal.
Protesters massed in at least four of Hong Kong’s busiest areas, including Admiralty, where Hong Kong’s government is headquartered, the Central business district, the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay, and the densely populated Mong Kok district in Kowloon.
Organizers said as many as 80,000 people thronged the streets after the protests flared on Friday night but numbers appear to have dwindled slightly in some areas on Tuesday as some protesters went home to rest. No independent estimate of crowd numbers was available.
Alex Chow, the leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said the protests represented more than what had begun as a gathering of students and the “Occupy Central” movement.
“It has evolved into a civil movement,” Chow said.
Protesters set up supply stations with water bottles, fruit, crackers, disposable raincoats, towels, goggles, face masks and tents, indicating they were in for the long haul.
Some lugged metal road barricades into positions on the edge of crowds, presumably to slow a police advance. In at least one location, several minivans and a truck were parked in rows in an apparent effort to block a road.
In Mong Kok, the windows of an abandoned double-decker bus were papered with messages of support such as “Go Hong Kong People!”. A small group of protesters near the bus clapped and cheered while others played the guitar and drums.
“Even though I may get arrested, I will stay until the last minute,” said 16-year-old protester John Choi.
“We are fighting for our futures.”
Communist Party leaders worry that calls for democracy could spread to the mainland, and have been aggressively censoring news and social media comments about the Hong Kong demonstrations. [ID:nL3N0RU4A1]
The demonstrations, labeled “illegal” by China’s Communist-run government in Beijing, are the worst in Hong Kong since China resumed its rule in 1997. They also represent one of the biggest political challenges for Beijing since it violently crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The movement presents Beijing’s Communist Party with a difficult challenge. Cracking down too hard could shake confidence in market-driven Hong Kong, which has a separate legal system from the rest of China. Not reacting firmly enough, however, could embolden dissidents on the mainland.
Financial fallout from the turmoil has been limited so far as investors gauge how severe Beijing’s response might be.
Hong Kong shares .HSI were down 1.5 percent on Tuesday, its second straight fall. Chinese shares were less troubled, perhaps because news of the protests in Hong Kong was hard to come by on the mainland. [ID:nL3N0RV08P]
The Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the de facto central bank, said 37 branches or offices of 21 different banks had been temporarily closed because of the protests.
The protests are expected to escalate on Wednesday, with residents of the nearby former Portuguese enclave of Macau also planning a rally.
“Maybe the police are planning a bigger operation for the coming night, so most of them need to rest and prepare,” Stanley Fong, a 22-year-old property agent, said of the relative lack of police out on Monday night.
But Hong Kong’s streets remained relatively quiet, in places even jubilant, early on Tuesday.
Some businesses have been directly affected, including luxury retailers in the Causeway Bay shopping mecca where protesters hunkered down.
“I don’t know what the police or government will do to me but I am 100 percent sure I need to come out (tonight),” said Ken To, the 35-year-old manager of a restaurant across Victoria Harbour in Mong Kok.
“We (Hong Kongers) don’t only want money. We want out kids, our future, our education,” he said.
The outside world has looked on warily, concerned that the clashes could spread and trigger a much harsher crackdown.
Washington has urged the Hong Kong authorities “to exercise restraint and for protesters to express their views peacefully”, according to a White House spokesman on Monday.
The protests have also been watched closely in Taiwan, which has full democracy but is considered by Beijing as a renegade province that must one day be reunited with the mainland. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said Beijing needed “to listen carefully to the demands of the Hong Kong people”.
Britain said it was concerned about the situation and called for the right of protest to be protected. [ID:nL6N0RU1WU]
The United States, Australia and Singapore issued travel alerts. [ID:nL3N0RQ3KJ]
An editorial in the state-run Global Times said on Tuesday China’s government would not change its policy “just because of the chaos created by the oppositionists”, and it suggested that the authorities might let the protests run their course.
(Additional reporting by Clare Baldwin, , Elzio Barreto,; Venus Wu, Yimou Lee, Diana Chan, James Pomfret, Kinling Lo, Twinnie Siu, Bobby Yip, Annemarie Roantree, John Ruwitch and Stefanie McIntyre in HONG KONG; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Mark Bendeich)