Hong Kong police on Thursday promised to respond firmly to any attempt by thousands of pro-democracy protesters to occupy administrative buildings, and authorities urged people to immediately end their blockade of the city centre.
The mostly young protesters have demanded Hong Kong’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, step down by the end of Thursday, and want China to introduce full democracy so the city can freely choose its own leader.
Several protest leaders, frustrated at the government’s refusal to meet their demands, have threatened to occupy government buildings if Leung fails to resign.
But the chief executive, appointed by Beijing, has refused to budge, leaving the two sides far apart in a dispute over how much political control China should have over Hong Kong.
Steve Hui, senior superintendent of the Hong Kong police force, said police would take action in accordance with the law if the protesters tried to enter government buildings.
“Whenever there are violent and major incidents and crimes such as fighting and any other situation that jeopardises safety and public order, police will take resolute and firm action to restore public order,” Hui said, when asked how police would respond should the students carry through with their threat.
“We assure (you) that police will have enough manpower to deal with every single situation”, he said.
Riot police used tear gas, pepper spray and baton charges last weekend to quell unrest, the worst in Hong Kong since China resumed its rule of the former British colony in 1997.
Tens of thousands of people were on the streets of central Hong Kong on Thursday night, below peak numbers seen during six days of mass demonstrations but still significant.
Some protesters said they would go back to work on Friday after a two-day public holiday, but they planned to continue to support the movement by returning in the evenings.
Several thousand people gathered outside Leung’s office in Central business district, where they faced more than 100 police officers wearing riot gear. The situation was calm so far.
The area is seen as a potential flashpoint as the student deadline approaches, and some demonstrators wore goggles and face masks. Hong Kong Cable TV showed police moving boxes marked as containing rubber bullets and tear gas into Leung’s offices.
“FIGHT TO THE VERY END”
The “Occupy Central” movement presents one of the biggest political challenges for Beijing since it violently crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Universal suffrage is an eventual goal under the “one country, two systems” formula by which China rules Hong Kong. Under that formula, China accords Hong Kong some autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China.
However, protesters calling for free elections reacted angrily when Beijing decreed on Aug. 31 that it would vet candidates wishing to run in Hong Kong’s 2017 election.
Protesters across the city have dug in, setting up supply stations with water bottles, fruit, raincoats, towels, goggles, face masks, tents and umbrellas.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the protest organisers, has urged people to surround more government buildings from Friday unless the authorities accepted their demands.
Protest leaders addressed supporters camped near the government headquarters, preparing them for a potentially tense night ahead.
“In the coming days we will team up to support the movement and provide resources. We will fight until the very end,” teenaged student leader Joshua Wong said from atop a ladder, to huge cheers.
The three main protest groups have started to work more closely together, perhaps aware that one of the risks to their movement is its lack of a unified leadership.
The Hong Kong government said the unrest was affecting public order and public services.
“About 3,000 government officials will try their best tomorrow to return to work. To maintain public service, the government headquarters must operate as usual,” the government said in a statement.
“We urge the Occupy Central leaders and organisers to stop the movement immediately.”
READY FOR THE LONG-GAME?
China has dismissed the pro-democracy protests as illegal, but it faces a dilemma.
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.
A government source with ties to Leung said the Hong Kong leader was prepared to play a long-game, intervening only if there was looting or violence.
“Unless there’s some chaotic situation, we won’t send in riot police … We hope this doesn’t happen,” the source said. “We have to deal with it peacefully, even if it lasts weeks or months.” Leung could not be reached for comment.
A front-page editorial on Thursday in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, lauded Leung’s leadership and the police response to the protests.
“The central government fully trusts Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and is very satisfied with his work,” it said.
But in a move that could rally more broad support for the protesters, respected former lawmaker Audrey Eu, chairwoman of the Civic Party, issued an open letter to Leung on Thursday calling on him to step down.
A pro-Beijing group told a news conference in Hong Kong their supporters would take to the streets to show support for Leung’s administration, raising the prospect of clashes between the two sides.
The crowded suburbs of Kowloon and the neighbouring New Territories are home to an extensive network of pro-Beijing groups, some of which boast close ties to mainland companies and officials and have grown active in street counter-protests in recent months.
REPUTATION UNDER THREAT
A top Chinese envoy has warned that the protests could tarnish the city’s reputation as one of the world’s leading financial hubs if they continued for a prolonged period.
China’s ambassador to Germany, Shi Mingde, told Reuters that the city’s reputation as a financial hub was not under threat for now. “But if shares fall, if the unrest continues, then the social order and (Hong Kong’s) role as a financial centre will be in danger,” he said in an interview in Berlin.
“This is neither in Hong Kong’s nor China’s interest.”
The city’s benchmark index, closed on Thursday for a holiday, plunged 7.3 percent in September.
Spooked by the protests, which turned violent at the weekend, some banks and other financial firms have begun moving staff to back-up premises on the outskirts of the city.
U.S. President Barack Obama told visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who earlier met Secretary of State John Kerry, that Washington was watching the protests closely and urged a peaceful solution.
“The United States has consistently supported the open system that is essential to Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity, universal suffrage, and the aspiration of the Hong Kong people,” the White House said in a statement about the meeting, also attended by national security adviser Susan Rice.