HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s leader said Tuesday that China won’t back down from its decision to limit voting reforms in the Asian financial hub, dashing hopes that the standoff between demonstrators and authorities could be resolved quickly through negotiations.
As pro-democracy protests that have blocked Hong Kong’s streets entered a fifth day, the unequivocal statement from Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying does not come as a surprise. Showing a willingness to talk would have made the Chinese leadership in Beijing appear weak, which could embolden dissidents and separatists on the mainland.
Leung, a Beijing appointee who is deeply mistrusted by the people, 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 resign before then – rejecting one of the protesters’ demands.
There was no immediate response from Occupy Central, the main civil disobedience movement, but the group said in a tweet that the pro-democracy movement had set a Wednesday deadline for Leung meet their demands, which include genuine democracy and his resignation. It said it would “announce new civil disobedience plans same day,” without elaborating.
Despite Leung’s urgings that they disperse and go home, thousands of people _ many of them university and high school students doing homework – gathered on a six-lane highway next to the local government headquarters
The protesters’ chief demand is that they don’t want Beijing to screen nominees for Hong Kong’s leadership elections. They see the central government as reneging on a promise that the chief executive would eventually be chosen through “universal suffrage.”
“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.”
Student leaders planned to make their own announcement Tuesday about further plans and demands.
Even larger crowds are expected to flood the streets Wednesday, China’s National Day holiday. The government said it was cancelling a fireworks display to mark the day.
On Sunday, police shocked the city by firing tear gas at crowds, but protesters passed a peaceful night Monday singing as they blocked streets in several parts of Hong Kong. Crowds chanted calls for Leung to resign, and sang anthems calling for freedom.
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.
Officials announced that schools in some districts of Hong Kong would remain closed Tuesday because of safety concerns, while dozens of bus routes were cancelled and some subway stops near protest areas were closed.
The protests have been dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution” by some, because the crowds have used umbrellas to not only block the sun, but also to deflect police pepper spray. Political slogans calling for freedom have also been written on the umbrellas.
Many younger Hong Kong residents raised in an era of plenty and with no experience of past political turmoil in mainland China have higher 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 in 1997.
China’s communist leaders take 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, but it cannot crack down too harshly on the semi-autonomous territory where a freewheeling media ensures global visibility.
Across the border, Chinese state media have provided scant coverage of the protests beyond noting that an illegal gathering spun out of control and was being curtailed by police.