Hong Kong democracy protesters defiant on National Day

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Pro-democracy crowds have stayed on the streets of Hong Kong at the start of National Day – which activists hope will see the largest protests so far.

Tens of thousands of people have been blocking parts of the city for days.

They are demanding that China withdraw plans to vet candidates for the next Hong Kong leadership election in 2017.

Current leader CY Leung has urged the protesters to go home, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has reaffirmed Beijing’s influence on the territory.

On Tuesday Mr Xi told Communist Party leaders in Beijing that his government would “steadfastly safeguard the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macau”.

Mr Leung, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has rejected campaigners’ call for him to stand down.

Early on Wednesday, he attended a ceremony in Hong Kong marking National Day, a public holiday that celebrates the founding of communist China in 1949.

The flag-raising ceremony went ahead peacefully, as student protesters looked on. The authorities have cancelled a fireworks display that was due to take place later in the day, however.

Meanwhile the US restated its position on the protests, saying that a genuine choice of candidates in the election would enhance the legitimacy of the chief executive.

The protests began at the weekend, and police responded with tear gas and pepper spray. Riot police later withdrew and since early on Monday the situation has remained calm.

The streets were relatively quiet on Tuesday but thousands flocked to the protest camps as night fell.

The demonstrators – who include student groups, supporters of the Occupy Central group and others angered by the police response – said they were confident that they would step up the protests on Wednesday.

“I think there will be a massive turnout, over 100,000 people tonight and leading into National Day,” Occupy Central activist Ed Chin told AFP news agency.

“We are not afraid of riot police…. We will not leave until Leung Chun-ying resigns,” student leader Lester Shum told the crowd.

Carrie Gracie, BBC News China editor, Hong Kong

“We want a real vote” is the chant heard in the heart of Hong Kong, which the protesters have renamed Democracy Square. A crowd many thousands-strong stretched in every direction, using their mobile phones to create a sea of dancing light.

It is the third night of protests and the demonstrators were exhilarated by facing down riot police. In a show of civic pride, many had spent the day sorting rubbish.

Others painted democracy slogans on the umbrellas that protected them from police pepper spray on Sunday and that have now become the motif for their movement.

China’s National Day is a test of strength that all sides will be watching closely. If the numbers on the street allow the protesters to say they have won the hearts and minds of the general public, Beijing will have to start thinking of a way to end this which avoids either loss of face or violence.

Beijing concerns

Hong Kong has a population of 7.2m and though there are many thousands of people on the streets, the degree of overall support for the protesters is unclear.

Some residents fear the demonstrations could affect relations with Beijing or hit the economy of the financial hub.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 under a formula that guarantees liberties not seen on the mainland, including freedom of speech and the right to protest.

Beijing ruled last month that Hong Kong people could elect their next leader in 2017, but the choice of candidates would be restricted to two or three people who must be approved by the majority of a pro-Beijing committee – meaning the Chinese government can effectively screen candidates.

The protests are seen as a direct challenge to Beijing’s grip on the territory’s politics.

Analysts say Communist Party leaders are worried that calls for democracy could spread to cities on the mainland.

News of the protests is being heavily censored in mainland China. Media have blamed “radical opposition forces” for stirring up trouble.

The US has repeatedly called for “restraint” in China’s response to the protests.

On Tuesday, state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Secretary of State John Kerry would discuss the protests with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi when the pair meet on Wednesday.

“We believe the legitimacy of the chief executive would be greatly enhanced if the basic law’s ultimate aim of selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage is fulfilled,” she said.

Hong Kong democracy timeline

  • 1997: Hong Kong, a former British colony, is handed back to China under an 1984 agreement giving it “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” for 50 years
  • 2004: China rules that its approval must be sought for changes to Hong Kong’s election laws
  • June-July 2014: Pro-democracy activists hold an unofficial referendum on political reform and a large rally, which is followed by protests by pro-Beijing activists
  • 31 August 2014: China says it will allow direct elections in 2017, but voters will only be able to choose from a list of pre-approved candidates; activists stage protests
  • 22 September 2014: Student groups launch a week-long boycott of classes in protest
  • 2017: Direct elections for chief executive due to take place
  • 2047: Expiry of current agreements

 

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