HONG KONG (CNN) — Hong Kongers marked China’s National Day in unprecedented fashion Wednesday, as pro-democracy protesters thronged the streets of the Asian financial hub for what is shaping up as a critical day in the territory’s “Umbrella Revolution.”
Huge crowds took to the streets throughout the annual public holiday marking the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Since 1997, when the sovereignty of Hong Kong was handed back to China, the holiday has been marked by a massive fireworks display, which was canceled this year because of the political unrest.
As the day wore on, more and more people joined a core of protesters who had endured heavy rain throughout the night.
As crowds grew in downtown Hong Kong, with fresh faces joining those who had braved the storms, there appeared no indication that the protesters’ determination was waning.
According to a CNN team on the ground, crowds at the main protest site in Hong Kong’s financial district Wednesday afternoon appeared significantly larger than at the same time Tuesday.
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon (local time), the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the main protest organizing groups, said it was prepared to widen the campaign of civil disobedience if the chief executive, C.Y. Leung, did not resign.
“If C.Y. Leung doesn’t step down by tonight or tomorrow night, we will announce (plans) to escalate the operation,” said Lester Shum, one of the organization’s figureheads. “This means: to occupy different important government buildings.”
The student movement also ruled out direct discussions with the chief executive.
“We are open to negotiate with the Hong Kong and Chinese government, but we will not talk to C.Y. Leung,” Shum said.
The protests were triggered by Beijing’s plans for Hong Kong’s political future — specifically, Beijing’s recent decision to vet candidates for the chief executive position in 2017.
‘We have to keep it peaceful’
Kelvin Cheung, a 21-year-old student who was helping sort recyclable trash near the main protest site, said he thinks “more pressure must be put on the government, otherwise they’ll turn a blind eye to our actions.”
But he was wary of the idea of occupying government buildings, describing it as “very controversial” and something that should be used only as a last resort. He said he was concerned it would cause “conflicts” with the police and government.
His classmate Cathy Wong, also 21, was even more cautious. “We have to keep it peaceful,” she said. “We can’t destroy the city.”
Earlier, Hui Chun-tak, the chief superintendent of the police Public Relations Branch, said at a joint police and emergency services news conference that although the protests remained calm, police would continue to monitor them to ensure public order and safety.
“Police appeal again to the protesters to continue to stay calm, and to leave the locations orderly and peacefully as soon as possible, so that the inconvenience caused to the general public could be minimized,” he said. He also urged protesters to give way to emergency vehicles.
To date 83 people — 53 males and 30 females — have been injured in the ongoing protests, according to a government media officer. The official would not comment on the nature or extent of the injuries.
First-timers joining demonstrations
Some people were joining the protests for the first time. Nic Lam, a 35-year-old IT worker, said his job and family had kept him away previously, but the public holiday had allowed him to attend and express his “long-term dissatisfaction” with the Hong Kong government.
Many families were at the main protest site, which had taken on a festive atmosphere, including band performances.
As China’s flag was flown alongside Hong Kong’s in National Day observances at various locations throughout the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, demonstrators expressed their grievances with mostly restrained protests.
At the official National Day flag-raising ceremony in Golden Bauhinia Square, in Wan Chai, pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong, 17, protested alongside other student demonstrators.
Led by Wong, who was arrested Friday during critical protests and released two days later, the group silently turned their backs and raised their arms in crosses as the Chinese and Hong Kong flags were raised.
“We crossed our arms because we want to express our dissatisfaction toward the government, to reflect our mistrust towards the central Chinese government, and to object to the National People’s Congress decision on August 31,” said Wong, referring to Beijing’s controversial ruling to allow only candidates approved by a nominating committee to run for office as Hong Kong’s chief executive.
In the buildup to the flag-raising, a statement from Wong’s Scholarism group calling for calm and restraint during the ceremony was widely circulated among protesters on social media networks.
“Just wear black, stay quiet with your chin down or carry an umbrella,” read a message. “No matter how much you dislike a country, disturbing its flag-raising ceremony will only be disrespectful.”
There was a notable protest at an official reception afterward, when local district councilor Paul Zimmerman opened a yellow umbrella — a symbol of the protest movement — as Leung, the main target of the protesters’ ire, addressed the crowd.
“I think C.Y. and the police commissioner owe Hong Kong an apology, nothing less … for what they have done,” Zimmerman told CNN affiliate i-Cable.
Leung: ‘Accept arrangements’
Protesters are seeking to change Beijing’s decision to vet candidates for the chief executive position, arguing that the right to vote in the special administrative region, or SAR, is moot if the candidates are decided in Beijing.
They fear that the territory’s independence is slipping away, and they accuse Leung of putting China’s central government ahead of the citizens of Hong Kong.
In his speech at the National Day reception, Leung told attendees that Hong Kongers should accept the deal over their 2017 elections as is.
“It is understandable that different people may have different ideas about a desirable reform package. But it is definitely better to have universal suffrage than not,” he said.
Leung’s mention of universal suffrage refers to new arrangements that will allow voters to cast an individual ballot, replacing the previous system in which the chief executive was elected by a 1,200-member committee stacked with Beijing-friendly appointments.
The protesters’ objection to the new system is that candidates will need to be approved by Beijing.
“It is definitely better to have the (chief executive) elected by 5 million eligible voters than by 1,200 people. And it is definitely better to cast your vote at the polling station than to stay home and watch on television the 1,200 members of the Election Committee cast their votes,” said Leung.
Even before the protests began, the chief executive suffered from a lack of support in the SAR. A survey conducted by the Hong Kong University Public Opinion Programme between September 17 and 22 found Leung to have an approval rate of just 21%.
Occupy: ‘Beijing should be able to listen’
That outcome is not seen as an acceptable solution to the protesters, who say they were promised the right to elect their own leaders under the terms of the handover agreement from Britain to China, and are opposed to Beijing retaining the ability to veto candidates.
Benny Tai, co-founder of one of the major protest movements, Occupy Central, told CNN that protesters were “not pushing or challenging the sovereign status of China over Hong Kong.”
“We want a right that we should enjoy, no more and no less,” he said.
“We hope that leaders in Beijing should be able to listen and … respond to the demands of Hong Kong people.”
Authorities have been restrained in their response since Sunday, when police hurled 87 tear gas canisters into a crowd after they refused to heed calls to disperse, spurring further protests.
But with protesters vowing not to leave until they achieve their goals, observers are nervously awaiting the authorities’ next move.
Victor Gao, director of China’s National Association of International Studies and a one-time translator to former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, told CNN from Beijing that the protests were “a violation of the law, and I think it will be dealt with as such.”
“I think if anyone in Hong Kong believes that by such action they can force mainland China’s central government here to back down, that’s really indulging in fantasy.”
At the United Nations building in New York on Tuesday, CNN’s Richard Roth asked China’s deputy U.N. ambassador what he thought of the protests.
Wang Min replied, “What, where? Hong Kong is part of China,” and then walked away.
Beijing is coming under increasing international pressure over the protests, with British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg saying he will summon the Chinese ambassador over concerns about the handling of the demonstrations.
Despite the huge turnout on the streets, not everyone in Hong Kong is behind the protest movement.
Leung has backing from pro-Beijing groups like the Silent Majority for Hong Kong, which have had their own rallies. They argue that pro-democracy activists will “endanger Hong Kong” and create chaos.
Andy Chan, a 57-year-old in Causeway Bay, told CNN he thought democracy should come “step by step.”
“Hong Kong should be stable, everything should be stable. I don’t want the stock market or the property market to be down to a horrible level.”