Hong Kong protesters are raising the stakes in anti-government demonstrations gripping the city, warning that students will occupy government buildings if the Chinese territory's chief executive does not resign.
Protesters issued their ultimatum Wednesday, saying pro-Beijing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying must step down by the end of the day Thursday or they will storm the buildings. It remained unclear early Thursday whether the loosely knit protest groups are in full agreement on the threatened action.
The situation is further blurred by reports that Chief Executive Leung is reluctant to use force against the protesters. It has been widely reported that Leung may attempt to wait out the protests in hopes they subside without more violence.
Leung has refused to resign or to meet with protest leaders, who also are demanding that Beijing scrap its plan to vet candidates seeking to replace Leung in 2017 elections.
Protesters heckled the territory's chief executive Wednesday during ceremonies to mark the 65th anniversary of the founding of communist China.
At a flag-raising ceremony in Bauhinia Square, marking China's national day, some activists were heard booing during the Chinese national anthem. Others turned their backs to the flag. Some yelled for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to step down.
Former leader reacts
Also on Wednesday, former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten called for a new period of genuine consultation over demands for greater democracy in the former British colony.
"I think we've got to see dialogue replacing tear gas and pepper sprays," he told BBC radio.
Patten, the last British governor before the 1997 handover of the territory to China, added: "I think in order to save face for Beijing and for the Hong Kong government, the right thing to do is to embark on a new period of consultation, make it genuine consultation, because there are a lot of very moderate people on the pro-democracy side."
Since Sunday, when police used large amounts of tear gas and pepper spray in a failed attempt to disperse crowds, there have been no reports of violence.
Many had feared police would use force to move crowds before Wednesday's celebrations marking the anniversary of the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
Those fears proved unfounded, and police stayed in the background.
Protesters are demanding Beijing scrap its plan for the 2017 election, which would allow a public vote but would appoint a candidate selection committee to screen applicants.
In a speech, Leung said the Beijing plan would be better than the current method of having an election committee select the territory's top leader.
"It is definitely better to have universal suffrage than not. It is definitely better to have the chief executive elected by 5 million eligible voters than by 1,200 people," Hong Kong's chief executive said. "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."
Leung, who on Tuesday called for an immediate end to the protests, did not directly mention the demonstrators. But he urged all sectors of society to work with the government in a "peaceful, lawful, rational and pragmatic manner."
One of the protest's main organizers, Occupy Central co-founder Chan Kin-man, apologized to citizens whose lives have been disrupted by the three demonstration sites.
Fighting back tears, Chan said he hopes Hong Kongers understand that, despite the disruption, protesters "are fighting for long-term harmony in society."
"Since the movement started, I want to apologize. I represent the three organizers and the people behind the protest and we want to apologize for those inconvenienced. Only CY Leung stepping down can improve the situation," said Chan.
However, Hong Kong student leader Lester Shum issued an ultimatum to Leung: step down or else face wider protests.
“We will escalate the action if CY Leung doesn't resign by tonight or tomorrow night. We will occupy more government facilities and offices,” Shum told reporters, without elaborating.
“I believe the government is trying to buy more time. They want to use tactics such as sending some people to create chaos so that they would have a good reason to disperse the crowd," he said.
Many businesses, along with some subway stops and bus routes, closed because of the protests, which are also rattling investors.
Hong Kong stocks fell nearly 1.3 percent Tuesday, following losses of 1.9 percent a day earlier, further raising fears the unrest could take an economic toll. The markets are closed Wednesday and Thursday for the holiday.
Foreign governments and rights groups continue to monitor the situation closely, fearful of fresh outbreaks of violence.
Former British diplomat Roderic Wye, who was posted at the British embassy in Beijing in the 1980s and 90s, and is now at London’s Chatham House, compares the protests to the Tiananmen protests and crackdown of 1989.
“What happens in Hong Kong, at the moment, is not going to threaten the very existence of the Chinese state in the way that Tiananmen did,” Wye said.
“They clearly don’t want something similar [the protests] to happen in China, because if it did start happening, then ... yes, we could be back in a situation sort of parallel to Tiananmen. And that is something that the Chinese government will do their utmost to avoid," he said.
Nearly 200,000 people have signed an online petition calling on U.S. President Barack Obama to urge China to not carry out a "second Tiananmen Square massacre."
In response to the petition, a White House statement said it believes the legitimacy of Hong Kong's chief executive could be "greatly enhanced" if protesters' demands for universal suffrage are granted.
The statement also urged Hong Kong authorities to exercise restraint and called on protesters to express their views peacefully.
In Washington, President Barack Obama joined a White House meeting between National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, to underscore U.S. hopes for a peaceful resolution of the Hong Kong standoff.
A White House statement said the Obama administration is closely following events in Hong Kong. It also noted consistent U.S. support for the "open system" of governance in the city necessary to maintain its "stability and prosperity."
President Obama opens a three-day visit to Beijing on November 10.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged both sides to resolve their differences in way that is "peaceful and safeguards democratic principles."
The protests are the worst unrest in Hong Kong since Beijing took control of the one-time British colony in 1997.
Communist Party leaders in Beijing worry that calls for democracy could spread to the mainland, and have been aggressively censoring news and social media comments about the Hong Kong demonstrations.
The human rights group Amnesty International issued a statement on its website Wednesday alleging that Chinese authorities have arrested more than 20 people for photos posted online in support of the Hong Kong protesters.
Rights groups also said that a number of mainland activists supporting the Hong Kong protests had been detained or intimidated by police on the mainland.
"The Chinese authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all those detained for peacefully showing support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, " the Amnesty statement said.
China has dismissed the protests in Hong Kong as illegal, but in a worrying sign for the Communist Party leadership in Beijing, the pro-democracy protests have spread to neighboring Macau and Taiwan.
The Hong Kong protests have been watched closely in Taiwan, which has full democracy but is considered by Beijing as a renegade province that must one day be reunited with the mainland.
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has said Beijing needed “to listen carefully to the demands of the Hong Kong people.”
In the former Portuguese colony of Macau, which like Hong Kong is now a Chinese “special administrative region,” a similar movement has called for changes in the way the gambling hub chooses its leader.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Cantonese service. Iris Tong contributed from Hong Kong. Some material for this report came from Reuters.
WATCH: Related video report by Brian Padden in Hong Kong