HONG KONG — As dusk fell on Hong Kong Tuesday evening, the mass of protesters packing the streets grew by the minute.
CNN’s Ivan Watson stood in the middle of the demonstration. “The crowd is swelling as it did last night as sunset approaches and as both sides in this dispute appear to be digging in their heels and unwilling to find a compromise,” he reported.
Though China has said it won’t give into the protesters’ demands for a full democracy and the right to elect its own leader, protesters camped out wearing masks, protective goggles and plastic raincoats on the main road leading into the city’s central business district. They were bracing for a potential re-match with police who fired tear gas at them two days ago.
Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung urged protesters to clear the roads Tuesday, saying they might pose a risk to public safety.
“The main roads are used by fire trucks and ambulances. They now have to take a detour, so we urge the society to think about this,” Leung said. “I now urge them to call a stop to this.”
But his words didn’t persuade protesters demanding the right to choose their next leader without interference from Beijing. Some called for Leung’s resignation.
“All the candidates will be pre-selected by Beijing. … It’s more or less like North Korea,” protest organizer Chan Kin-man told CNN.
“But we are an international city. We have a younger generation who have been taught about civil rights, political rights. And we want our words to be heard.”
The protest marks the biggest demonstration in Hong Kong since it was handed back to China by the British in 1997.
Why are the protesters irate?
Hong Kong residents were supposed to be able to freely elect their leader — called the chief executive — for the first time in 2017. It was part of the deal made when Hong Kong reverted back to China.
That election was going to be momentous because currently, Hong Kong’s leader is elected by a 1,200-strong committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
But just last month, China said it would allow only Beijing-vetted candidates to participate in the 2017 election — an apparent backtrack of its earlier promise.
Leung said Tuesday that China will not back down from its position on Hong Kong.
“Based on the basic law, we will be able to have one-person, one-vote universal suffrage,” Leung said.
“I understand this universal suffrage is somewhat different to what the public thinks it would be. But this is based on the basic law. We still want to remain peaceful, calm and think what the best is for Hong Kong.”
Student Alex Chow, who organized the demonstrations, called Leung’s response “totally nonsense.”
Chow accused Leung of being at the command of Beijing. “The current situation is totally out of C.Y. Leung’s control,” Chow told CNN.
“Actually, the government is under great pressure,” he continued, “and we will demand and call for more people” to protest in the coming days.
Still, other protesters believe that if Leung steps down, the tense atmosphere in Hong Kong will calm down, but there will still be a push for democracy, said 42-year-old Novelle Wong.
“There will be another C.Y. coming up,” Wong said. “This ordeal will happen all over again.”
The demonstrations gained momentum after winning the support of Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a protest group that was already planning to lead a campaign of civil disobedience later this week against the Chinese government’s decision on choosing the next person to lead Hong Kong.
What about counter-protesters?
Not all Hong Kongers support the popular protest movement.
Pro-Beijing groups like “The Silent Majority for Hong Kong” say the activists will “endanger Hong Kong” and create chaos.
They have held their own rallies against Occupy Central and ran advertising campaigns in local media to highlight their fears.
Businesses worry that any campaign targeting the city’s financial district will harm Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe and stable place to do business.
More violence ahead?
“The mood here has generally been very, very calm, very peaceful,” CNN’s Andrew Stevens said from the middle of the protest Tuesday evening. “It’s almost carnival style.”
But just two days ago police hurled 87 tear gas canisters into the crowd — much to the alarm of those who considered the gathering peaceful.
“We gave them enough of a chance to leave, and this included warnings,” Assistant Police Commissioner Cheung Tak-keung said of protesters at a news conference Monday. “But when they failed, we had to use force.”
Both Hong Kong and Chinese officials have called the protests illegal.
At least 59 people have been injured so far, a Hong Kong government spokeswoman said. At least 12 police officers were among the injured, authorities said.
Police say they’ve arrested 89 people since protests began, accusing them of forcible entry into government premises, disorderly conduct in public, assaulting police officers and obstructing police.
What’s the impact?
The protests have brought widespread disruption to the heart of one of Asia’s biggest financial centers.
On Tuesday, 37 branches or offices of 21 banks were closed, the Hong Kong Information Services Department said. It said ATM services were also disrupted in some areas.
And 157 schools closed Tuesday due to the protests, the Hong Kong Education Bureau said.
In an indication authorities don’t expect the demonstrations to end soon, the Hong Kong government said it was canceling the city’s annual fireworks display on Wednesday — China’s National Day — because of the protests.
Some analysts say they see little hope of compromise between the committed protesters and the Chinese Communist Party, which remains notorious for its ruthless suppression of pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
“I see no way the Chinese government can tolerate what is happening in HK. Greatly fear this will end badly,” tweeted Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, who covered the Tiananmen crackdown for CNN.
Chinese authorities apparently tried to restrict the flow of information into the mainland about what was happening in Hong Kong.
On Tuesday, China blocked out reporting on Hong Kong in mainland China, CNN Beijing Correspondent David McKenzie said.
Earlier, censors had blocked access to Instagram after images of the protests flooded the photo-sharing app.
“Everybody is in completely unknown territory,” said Roderic White, an associate fellow at London-based Chatham House. “How these things end, we just don’t know.”