Pro-democracy protests swelled in Hong Kong on the eve of a two-day holiday that may bring record numbers to rallies spreading throughout the city as organizers pressed demands for free elections.
Thousands of people packed the streets waving mobile phones, umbrellas and singing songs as they listened to speeches by protest leaders, who put the crowd at 100,000. Hong Kong marks China’s National Day tomorrow, the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
“It’s quite possible that at least more than 100,000, if not up to 300,000, 400,000 people, will join in the protest in a show of people’s power,” Willy Lam, adjunct professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said in an interview today. “They want to convince the Hong Kong government and Beijing that any use of force will be counter-productive. It will only galvanize more of the rest of Hong Kong’s 7 million people.”
The movement, kick-started by students on Sept. 26, grew following weekend clashes with riot police who used tear gas to disperse crowds. Student leaders said today that the protests would spread if their demands aren’t met for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to resign and for the government in Beijing to drop plans to control the 2017 leadership election.
Protesters are calling the five-day demonstration the “umbrella revolution” after people sheltered behind umbrellas when the police used pepper spray and tear gas on Sept. 28. Public outrage at the televised scenes of the clashes led the government to pull anti-riot police off the streets.
The benchmark Hang Seng Index dipped again today, marking its biggest two-day decline since February.
Demonstrators are spread across four metro stations from the Central business district to the popular shopping area of Causeway Bay. As many as 100,000 people may be at Admiralty, the center of the protests where people have surrounded the government headquarters, student leader Joshua Wong said.
“Don’t underestimate the power of being here,” Wong, 17, told the crowd. “The government and C.Y. Leung are getting more pressure. We are not causing trouble or creating chaos, we are here to express our demands.”
When asked at a press conference today whether he would resign, Leung said that “any personnel changes” would result in the existing election committee choosing his successor, rather than through a vote.
At the briefing, Leung dismissed speculation that the People’s Liberation Army, which was used to crush the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, would be used in Hong Kong. He also said that the city was preparing for the protests to last.
“The impact from Occupy Central would not be just three to five days -- it could be quite long,” Leung said, citing the protesters’ road blocks, medical aid centers and supply stations.
The students called for Leung to respond to their demands by tomorrow. Leung is due to mark the founding of modern China at an 8 a.m. ceremony near where the main protests are being held. The popular firework show over Victoria Harbour for the holiday has been canceled.
Demonstrators tonight include office workers, children and university students in black tee-shirts. Volunteers handed out McDonald’s dinners, water bottles, while the crowd sang a signature song of the Cantonese music band Beyond.
“We will keep coming back if the government doesn’t respond to the students’ demands,” said Thomas So, a 64-year-old retiree. “Mainland China promised Hong Kong universal suffrage. We did not make it up.”
The demonstrations coincide with Golden Week, a week-long holiday in China when hundreds of thousands of people from the mainland travel to Hong Kong. Some retailers are closing outlets, with Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group Ltd., the world’s largest jewelry chain, shutting about 20 shops today.
The real estate market is also feeling the effects of the protests. Apartment viewings have dropped 50 percent, Centaline Property Agency Ltd, the biggest privately held realtor in Hong Kong, said in an e-mail. Prices may show a decline if the rallies last more than a week, the broker said.
The economic loss from the demonstrations is at least HK$40 billion ($5.2 billion), China Central Television reported today, citing business associations. The occupation has had a “severely negative” impact on daily lives, it said.
The protests -- spurred by China’s decision last month that candidates for the 2017 leadership election must be vetted by a committee -- pose the biggest challenge to China’s control of the city since British colonial rule ended in 1997.
At the time, the Chinese government pledged to maintain the city’s freedoms under its “one country, two systems” approach. China had endorsed the idea of holding elections in Hong Kong as far back as 1990 with the adoption of the Basic Law, the city’s de-facto constitution. As China’s influence has grown within the Hong Kong government, pro-democracy activists stepped up their fight for a open election when the city holds its first vote for chief executive in 2017.
The clashes with police this week were the city’s biggest since unrest in the 1960s led by pro-Communist groups inspired by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Police arrested 89 people during the weekend demonstrations, a spokesman said.
“Protesters aren’t likely to go home tomorrow, unless the government deliver something to the people,” said Martin Lee, founding chairman of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong.
— With assistance by Fion Li, Jasmine Wang, and Alfred Liu