BEIJING/WASHINGTON - Official Hong Kong marked the 65th anniversary Wednesday of the founding of communist China, as city leaders remained locked in a tense standoff with tens of thousands of protesters demanding greater democratic reforms.
As the city bristled with tension, an early morning flag-raising ceremony in Bauhinia Square drew marching bands and hundreds of dignitaries to commemorate China's National Day.
Nearby, tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators angered by pro-Beijing government restrictions on 2017 elections showed no signs of backing down.
The flag-raising went off peacefully, although scores of students near the waterfront ceremonies were heard booing as the Chinese national anthem was played.
There have been no reports of violence since Sunday, when police used tear gas in a failed attempt to disperse crowds.
The Occupy Central movement set a Wednesday deadline for Chief Executive Leung Chun-yingto meet demands for greater democratic reforms..
One of the organizers of Occupy Central, Chen Jianmin, said in an interview with VOA Tuesday the only way to defuse the crisis is for Leung to step down and to re-start the process of political reform.
“Only after a new government comes to power [will] we have a chance to restart political reform. Some may feel it is more difficult to ask [Beijing] to change its decision immediately. But for changing the chief executive, I believe it will be more realistic, and it is also associated with our livelihood. Because we all believe that he is the biggest obstacle. Especially when you look at what happened yesterday, he used tear gas against peaceful demonstrators, which makes you more likely to believe that he is not bringing democracy [to] Hong Kong, and he is even taking away some of our existing rights and freedoms," said Jianmin.
On Tuesday, Leung said he would not give into the protesters' demands, and urged Occupy Central to immediately end the five-day protests. He called the demonstrations illegal, but said he expected them to last for a long time.
Neither side is showing any signs of backing down even as China prepares to mark its National Day on Wednesday.
“The Central Government won't be swayed by illegal activities. This illegal protest will not force the central government to go back on its decision of August 31,” Leung said of China's decision that a pro-Beijing panel will screen all candidates in the territory's first direct elections, scheduled for 2017.
Eve of anniversary
While Leung has said Beijing would not back down in the face of protests, he also said on Tuesday Hong Kong police would be able to maintain security without help from People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops from the mainland.
It was Leung's first comments since Sunday, when baton-wielding police used large amounts of tear gas and pepper spray to violently disperse the peaceful protesters.
Protesters ignored the demand Tuesday, taking to the streets in greater numbers as the evening approached. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have camped out in sevearl parts of the city.
Hong Kong police have withdrawn now for more than a day and protesters are continuing their efforts to prepare for a longer, more drawn out confrontation.
Some protesters have voiced concern that authorities may return again in force later Tuesday in a bid to clear the streets before the Chinese holiday, when even more protesters are expected to join the rally.
According to a poll released last week by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, about 46 percent of the city’s residents oppose efforts to blockade the city, while about 31 percent support the movement.
Of those who support Occupy Central, 47 percent were under the age of 24.
In addition to their concerns about democracy, Hong Kong’s younger generation are worried about low-paying jobs and increasing competition from mainland Chinese coming to the financial hub to work.
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology professor David Zweig said the controversy surrounding the 2017 elections and concerns that Leung is taking the port city down the wrong path are not the only issues driving the protests.
“I think the other issue is that there is a lot of anger. If you look at the data in general in Hong Kong, January this year, the anger at the central government, the anger at the local government, the concerns about future job prospects and all that and anxiety in general, this is worst than anytime since the major marches of 2003," Zweig said.
China may weigh in
The professor said he is worried that both sides are not willing to compromise, which could lead to clashes.
“You know we got October 1st coming up, 65th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China," Zweig said. "I worry that Xi Jinping may decide that he doesn’t want to celebrate that event with students occupying the government headquarters or surrounding the government headquarters down in Hong Kong.”
Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters extended a blockade of Hong Kong streets on Tuesday, blocking at least four major areas around the city, including Admiralty, the Central business district, the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay and Mong Kok in Kowloon.
The protests are widely expected to escalate on Wednesday to coincide with National Day celebrations.
The protesters were also stockpiling supplies and erecting makeshift barricades ahead of what some fear may be a push by police to clear the roads before Chinese National Day.
Riot police shot pepper spray and tear gas at protesters at the weekend, but by Tuesday evening they had almost completely withdrawn from the downtown Admiralty district except for an area around the government headquarters.
On the eve of Wednesday's anniversary of the Communist Party's foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, crowds poured into central districts of the Asian financial hub, near where National Day festivities are scheduled to take place.
Rumors have rippled through crowds of protesters that police could be preparing to move in again, as the government has vowed to go ahead with celebrations.
Effects of protests
Many businesses, along with some subway stops and bus routes, remain 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.
Eddie Fung, a 60-year-old construction officer, said he supports the student-led demonstrations.
"I think if we want something, sacrifices cannot be avoided. No pain, no gain, right? When I see the young people's passion, I support them from deep within my heart. I hope there won't be any bloodshed," said Fung.
The protests are the worst in Hong Kong since China resumed its rule in 1997. They also represent one of the biggest political challenges for Beijing since it violently crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The outside world has looked on warily, concerned that the clashes could spread and trigger a much harsher crackdown.
The White House said Monday the United States is closely watching the situation in Hong Kong, and supports freedom of assembly and expression. It urged authorities there to show restraint and called for protesters to be peaceful.
The United States, Australia and Singapore have issued travel alerts to the territory.
Police actions cause for 'concern'
Human Rights Watch on Tuesday said police use of riot gear, pepper spray, tear gas and police batons, as well as the detention of peaceful protesters, "raise serious concern" about how the Hong Kong and Chinese governments will respond to the protests.
In a statement, the New York-based group said the protesters appear to pose no clear or imminent threat to public safety or property. Besides scattered instances of protesters shaking police barriers or throwing empty plastic bottles, it said there has been no protester violence.
British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed concern about the clashes between protesters and police.
Britain called for "constructive" talks that would lead to a "meaningful advance for democracy."
In Washington, the White House said the legitimacy of Hong Kong's chief executive would be enhanced after the elections if the territory's residents had a genuine choice of candidates.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying defiantly told a news briefing in Beijing, "Hong Kong is China's Hong Kong." She said China firmly opposes "any form of support" by foreign countries for what it said were "illegal" protests.
Some have called the student-led protests the "Umbrella Revolution," as demonstrators have hoisted umbrellas against the sun and as flimsy protection against the police use of pepper spray.
Brian Padden and Pros Laput contributed to this story from Hong Kong, some material came from the the VOA Mandarin service, Reuters and AP.View full gallery