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Hong Kong protesters, leaders remain deadlocked over election demands

Protests over the decision to allow a pro-Beijing panel to screen 2017 election candidates swell, enter fifth day

Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and leaders of the semiautonomous city remained in a political deadlock Tuesday after crowds continued to swell and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said China would not back down from its decision to limit voting reforms in the Asian financial hub — dashing hopes of a timely resolution to the now five-day-long standoff.

Leung, a Beijing appointee who is mistrusted by many in Hong Kong, said that mainland communist leaders would not reverse their August decision requiring a pro-Beijing panel to screen candidates in the territory's first direct elections, scheduled for 2017.

"The central government will not rescind its decision," said Leung, adding that he wouldn't heed protesters’ demands to step down.

Leung’s unequivocal statement did not come as a surprise. Showing a willingness to negotiate with protesters would have made the Chinese leadership in Beijing appear weak, which could embolden dissidents and separatists on the mainland.

There was no immediate response from Occupy Central, the main civil disobedience group organizing protests, but it said in a tweet that the broader pro-democracy movement had set a Wednesday deadline for Leung to meet their demands, which include genuine democracy and Leung's resignation.

The movement said it would "announce new civil disobedience plans same day," without elaborating. Student leaders planned to make their own announcement Tuesday about further plans and demands.

The protesters see the Chinese central government as reneging on a promise that Hong Kong’s chief executive would eventually be chosen through "universal suffrage."

Despite Leung's urgings that protesters disperse and police tactics that have at times turned violent, thousands of Hong Kongers – many of them university and high school students – remain camped on a six-lane highway next to local government headquarters.

'We are not scared'

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

"The people on the streets are here because we've made the decision ourselves, and we will only leave when we have achieved something," said Chloe Cheung, a 20-year-old student at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. "We are waiting for the government to respond to our demands for democracy and a say in what the elections will be like."

Nevertheless, rumors spread among protesters that police were preparing to move in with pepper spray and batons – just as they did on Sunday – to disperse crowds ahead of Wednesday’s anniversary of the Communist Party’s foundation of the People’s Republic of China.

“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.”

Many younger Hong Kong residents raised in an era of plenty and with no experience of past political turmoil in mainland China have high expectations. Under an agreement set in 1984, before most of them were born, Beijing promised to allow Hong Kong residents civil liberties – unseen in the rest of China – after it took control of the city from Britain in 1997.

Global reaction, fallout

China's communist leaders have taken a hard line against any threat to their monopoly on power, including clamping down on dissidents and Muslim Uighur separatists in the country's far west. However, Beijing has been careful not to crack down too harshly on Hong Kong, where a freewheeling media ensures global visibility.

Organizers said as many as 80,000 people thronged the streets of the financial hub after demonstrations flared on Friday night, and many have slept out for the past four nights blocking usually busy roads. No independent estimate of crowd numbers was available.

Financial fallout from the turmoil has been limited so far as investors gauge how severe Beijing's response might be. Still, Hong Kong shares fell to a three-month low on Tuesday, registering their biggest monthly fall since May 2012. The city's benchmark index has plunged 7.3 percent this month. Chinese shares were less troubled, perhaps because news of the protests in Hong Kong was hard to come by on the mainland. 

The outside world has looked on warily, concerned that the clashes could spread and trigger a much harsher crackdown. Washington and Britain have also urged Hong Kong authorities to exercise restraint and for protesters to express their views peacefully.

But some commentators say for those looking toward the global community to speak out stronger for people seeking basic democratic freedoms, China's economic prowess has been a deterrent. 

“Both Britain and the U.S. and everybody else has little leverage because China is really powerful economically," Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University told Al Jazeera. 

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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