HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s embattled leader called Tuesday for an immediate end to street demonstrations that have drawn tens of thousands and paralyzed parts of the city, but protesters refused to move until China grants genuine democracy.
In his first public comments since demonstrators were tear-gassed by riot police on Sunday evening, chief executive Leung Chun-ying said protests organized by the pro-democracy Occupy Central group had got “out of control.”
“Occupy Central founders had said repeatedly that if the movement is getting out of control, they would call for it to stop. I’m now asking them to fulfill the promise they made to society, and stop this campaign immediately,” he said.
Protest leaders immediately rejected Leung’s demands and renewed calls for him to step down.
“If Leung Chun-ying an-nounces his resignation, this occupation will be at least temporarily stopped in a short period of time, and we will decide on the next move,” co-founder Chan Kin-man told reporters.
The protests have left Beijing grappling with one of the biggest challenges to its rule over the semi-autonomous city at a time when the Communist Party is cracking down hard on dissent on the mainland.
The demonstrations, the worst civil unrest Hong Kong has experienced since its 1997 handover from British rule, were sparked by Beijing’s decision last month to restrict who can stand for the city’s top post.
Hong Kongers will be able to vote for their next chief executive in 2017 elections but only two or three candidates vetted by a pro-Beijing committee will be allowed to stand—something which demonstrators have labelled a “fake democracy” that shows Hong Kong cannot trust its mainland overseers.
But Leung said Beijing would not be persuaded by the protesters to change its stance while they occupy streets.
“The central government will not be coerced into submission because some people have used illegal actions,” he said.
Protesters expect a huge turnout for the National Day holiday on Wednesday despite Beijing’s hardline stance.
“I think there will be a massive turnout, over 100,000 people tonight and leading into National Day,” hedge fund manager and Occupy Central activist Ed Chin told Agence France-Presse.
‘We must keep fighting’
Schools in affected areas on Tuesday were again closed and commuters faced disruption, with many bus routes suspended or rerouted and taxis were scarce.
Throughout the morning protester numbers dwindled from their overnight highs, when tens of thousands turned the city’s downtown into a carnival after riot police withdrew.
But those manning the barricades showed no signs of backing down, digging in for a third day of occupying major thoroughfares.
“We have to keep fighting for freedom and democracy because it has been gradually taken away from us,” 23-year-old Phoebe Wong told Agence France-Presse.
“People won’t stop until we have a result we’re happy with,” she added.
In the central district of Admiralty—where many interna-tional businesses and the main protest site are located—an exhausted 20-year-old Sirius Lee said he would press on.
“We are still struggling for our freedom and our right to select our chief executive in the future,” the university student told Agence France-Presse.
“I think the Beijing government chooses to hear nothing, to see nothing,” he said.
Analysts say the chances of Beijing backing down are virtually non-existent, leaving a city once renowned for its stability plunged into an unknown future with democracy activists concerned the police could return in force at any moment.
Overnight, the United States led international calls for Hong Kong authorities to “exercise restraint.”
“We believe an open society, with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law, is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
Britain also expressed concern, calling for “constructive” talks to end the standoff.
But on Monday Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing opposed “any foreign and external interference in China’s internal affairs by any country.”
Frustration and strikes
Communist authorities are worried that dealing with the protests too softly could encour-age wider demands for greater freedoms on the mainland.
Hong Kong authorities mean-while are caught between protester demands, Beijing’s uncompromising stance and efforts to keep the city running.
Many locals have expressed frustration at the huge disruption, with the crowds blocking key junctions in the busy Causeway Bay and Mongkok shopping districts as well as the biggest protest site in Admiralty near the government headquarters.
But the demonstrations have also prompted displays of solidarity. Some social workers and teachers went on strike after unions called for members to take action.
Commentators say still bigger crowds could turn out as the week progresses, with Wednesday and Thursday both public holidays.
Wednesday marks the 65th anniversary of the Communist Party’s assumption of power in Beijing—which is celebrated as National Day across China. In Hong Kong, fireworks scheduled for Wednesday evening have been cancelled.