Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters set deadline for government response

Demonstrators want reply by Wednesday but city officials say Beijing won't rescind decision to restrict voting reforms

Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have set a Wednesday deadline for a response from the government to meet their demands for reforms after spending another night blocking streets in an unprecedented show of civil disobedience.

A brief statement from the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement said it had set the Oct. 1 deadline for the city's unpopular chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, to meet their demands for genuine democracy and for him to step down as Hong Kong's leader.

The group said on Twitter it would "announce new civil disobedience plans same day," without elaborating.

The protesters are demanding free and open elections after rejecting Beijing's decision last month to rule out open nominations for candidates under proposed guidelines for the first-ever elections for Hong Kong's leader, promised for 2017.

China took control of the former British colony in 1997, agreeing to a policy of "one country, two systems," which allowed Hong Kong to keep civil liberties unseen on the mainland, and promising that the city's leader would eventually be chosen through universal suffrage. But Beijing's insistence on screening election candidates for patriotism has stoked fears among democracy groups that Hong Kong will never have a genuine democracy.

China has called the protests illegal and endorsed the Hong Kong government's crackdown. The protests, which have drawn tens of thousands of people, raised the stakes in the face-off against Chinese President Xi Jinping's administration, that takes a hard line against threats to the Communist Party's monopoly on power, including clamping down on dissidents.

But what had been largely a student movement solidified into something more on Sunday when Hong Kong police fired volleys of tear gas to disperse pro-democracy protests and baton-charged a crowd blocking a key road in the government district in defiance of official warnings that called the demonstrations illegal.

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.

With that change, even larger crowds are expected to flood the streets Wednesday, China's National Day holiday. The government said it was canceling the fireworks display scheduled to mark the day.

Leung on Tuesday urged Occupy Central to take into account the considerations of other residents and stop its protest, which has snarled traffic, disrupted public transport and school schedules for days. But he said China's communist leaders in Beijing would not back down from an August decision to restrict voting reforms for the first direct elections to pick his successor in 2017.

"The central government will not rescind its decision," he said.

His remarks came after the protesters passed a peaceful night Monday singing as they blocked streets in several Hong Kong districts They also staged a brief "mobile light" vigil, waving their glowing cell phones as the protests stretched into their fourth day. Crowds chanted calls for Leung to resign, and sang anthems calling for freedom.

Rumors percolated through the protesters who spent Monday night on the streets that police, who had withdrawn during the day, were preparing to move in again.

"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.

As the sun rose Tuesday, many remained wary on the eve of the anniversary of the Communist Party's foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949 but a crowd, mostly students, continued to occupy a six-lane highway next to the local government headquarters. Protesters remained  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.

Officials announced that schools in some districts of Hong Kong would remain closed Tuesday because of safety concerns, while dozens of bus routes were canceled and some subway stops near protest areas were closed.

"The students are protecting the right to vote, for Hong Kong's future. We are not scared, we are not frightened, we just fight for it," said Carol Chan, a 55-year-old civil service worker who took two days off to join the protests.

On Monday, riot police withdrew from the extraordinary scene of clashes that erupted the evening before, and the government asked the student-led protesters to disperse peacefully.

But the protesters — whose use of umbrellas, plastic wrap and other improvised defenses against tear gas has led some to dub their movement the Umbrella Revolution — remained camped on a normally busy highway near Hong Kong government headquarters.

Students and activists have been camped out on the streets outside the city’s main government complex since late Friday. Students started the rally, but by early Sunday leaders of the broader Occupy Central civil disobedience movement said they were joining them to kick-start a long-threatened mass sit-in to demand that an election for Hong Kong's leader be held without Beijing's interference.

Police said they used 87 rounds of tear gas Sunday in what they called a necessary but restrained response to protesters pushing through cordons and barricades. They said 41 people were injured, including 12 police officers.

"Police cordon lines were heavily charged by some violent protesters. So police had to use the minimum force in order to separate the distance at that moment between the protesters and also the police," said Cheung Tak-keung, the assistant police commissioner for operations.

China's central government has in recent weeks faced sharp criticism from Western governments over its plans for Hong Kong's electoral reform. Britain said on Monday that it was "concerned" about the mounting protests in Hong Kong and was "monitoring events carefully." 

"Hong Kong’s prosperity and security are underpinned by its fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to demonstrate," the U.K. Foreign Office said. "It is important for Hong Kong to preserve these rights and for Hong Kong people to exercise them within the law."

The U.S. on Monday asked Hong Kong's leaders to show restraint and said it backs universal suffrage in the territory. 

"The United States urges the Hong Kong authorities to exercise restraint and for protesters to express their views peacefully," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.

Al Jazeera and wire services


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