Thousands Swell Hong Kong Protests as Deadline Looms

Tens of thousands of protesters poured back into the streets around Hong Kong’s government headquarters after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying called on them to clear access to the complex by tomorrow.

Students leading the demonstrations put the crowds amassed downtown at about 200,000 -- as large as any since the pro-democracy rallies began Sept. 26 -- with many people turning out to support protesters attacked by groups of men on Oct. 3. The demonstration set the stage for another showdown with the government, as Leung asserted his “responsibility and determination to take any necessary action” to restore order in the Asian financial center.

“The most immediate thing: on Monday, entrances of government headquarters must be clear,” he said, in a televised address yesterday evening. About 3,000 civil servants were prevented from going to work at the offices on Oct. 3.

Student protesters seeking direct elections free from limits set by China’s central government have obstructed roads for more than a week, paralyzing much of central Hong Kong and forcing schools, stores and government offices to close. The benchmark Hang Seng Index fell 2.6 percent last week -- its steepest drop since March -- as the former British colony slipped into its worst political crisis since China regained sovereignty in 1997.

Talks agreed to by both sides on Oct. 2 were shelved by the students the following day after protesters in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district were attacked by hundreds of men opposing the demonstrations. Police arrested 20 people, including eight with suspected ties to the city’s triad gangs.

Police Probe

In his address, Leung said the government “strongly condemns” the violence in Mong Kok. If “the incident develops further, it is very possible that the situation will continue to be out of control, harming public safety and social order,” he said.

The Hong Kong Federation of Students, one group leading the protest, said in a statement on its Facebook page last night that talks could resume if the government opened an investigation into the police’s conduct in Mong Kok, where some protest leaders accused the police of allowing organized violence against them.

The city’s Secretary of Security Lai Tung-kwok called such claims “highly unreasonable and extremely unfair” and said the police would continue to act in a professional manner.

Sporadic clashes erupted yesterday between pro-democracy protesters and those who say their occupation of some of the city’s busiest shopping areas has hurt local businesses and hampered transportation.

Risky Areas

Reports of scuffles in Mong Kok continued, although a larger contingent of police appeared to avoid a repeat of the Oct. 3 violence. Around 3 a.m., police struggled to push back hundreds of protesters angry about what they said was a hesitancy to arrest men who had been attacking them, according to a Cable TV broadcast.

The protest camps were “high risk” areas and members of the public should stay away, Assistant Police Commissioner Cheung Tak-keung said at a press briefing yesterday. Lawmakers including democracy supporter Ronny Tong and Beijing-backer Starry Lee also issued new pleas for students to leave the streets, Hong Kong’s Commercial Radio reported.

Protest leaders gave no sign of clearing out in speeches to the crowds assembled in Admiralty last night. People filled the roads and bridges running past the city’s government offices, holding up their mobile phones occasionally in a modern candlelight vigil. They chanted and cheered as various figures of the pro-democracy movement addressed crowds.

Student Demands

Joshua Wong, 17, the founder of the student activist group Scholarism, said 200,000 people were in attendance, about the same number that attended the rallies’ Oct. 1 peak. No police estimates were available.

“They say we’re chaotic -- look around -- are we chaotic?” Wong said, his amplified voice the only sound as he spoke to the thousands gathered around him. “I see you all here and I know that what we’ve worked toward has not been for nothing.”

Demonstrators remained clustered on the roads leading to the government offices even after Benny Tai Yiu-ting, founder of the Occupy Central With Love and Peace group of protesters, called on the crowds to give way.

Stay Peaceful

“If we can open a road to allow civil servants to get to work on Monday, Leung Chun-ying will have no excuse to clear us out,” Tai said in a speech last night.

Ho Fung, a second-year university student sitting in the middle of the road leading to the offices, said he intended to remain peaceful if attacked.

“If I don’t sit here, then all our momentum will be gone,” said Ho, who was part of a group of four students sitting on stools and black garbage bags. “The police and the government will run the show again.”

The protests were triggered by China’s decision that candidates for chief executive in the 2017 elections be vetted by a committee. Pro-democracy groups say that will guarantee the candidates’ obedience to China. They are seeking a more open system, as well as Leung’s resignation.

Lawmaker Regina Ip, a former secretary for security, has requested an emergency meeting with the government on starting a dialogue with the students.“The situation is very volatile, and I am not sure what happens next,” she said

More people would be drawn out to protest if authorities move to clear the roads after Leung’s deadline expires, said David Ma, a 37-year-old teacher sitting against a barricade in front of the government offices.

“I’ve been here for several days, coming back again and again,” Ma said. “If the students are still here, I will be back.”

— With assistance by Dominic Lau, and Randall Jensen

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