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Pro-democracy protesters face police as they wait outside the Legislative Counsel Office on Thursday in Hong Kong.XAUME OLLEROS/AFP / Getty Images

It had the makings of the sort of conversation Hong Kong's democracy protesters have hoped to inspire. Under the hot sun, a small group of Mandarin-speaking visitors crowded around one of the protesters who have transformed the city's downtown into a hotbed of dissent, and begged to know more about their cause.

Mandarin is the language spoken by many mainland Chinese, and protesters harbour hope the movement they have sparked will spread across China. If mainland Chinese learn more about Hong Kong's anxieties over Communist rule, "maybe that will be the first step in knowing how to topple tyranny," said Anthony Fung, a 17-year-old protester.

But as Hong Kong demonstrators threatened a new escalation of their protests Wednesday, they also faced a growing frustration that their conversation with other Chinese has been cut off by Beijing – and that many on the mainland aren't particularly interested in their struggles for more democratic representation.

The disconnect has undergirded an uncompromising Chinese posture toward the demonstrations, which state media on Wednesday called an unlawful occupation that should be cleared out by police.

The stage is being set for an increasingly tense conflict, as student protest leaders threaten to take over government buildings Thursday if Beijing does not sit down with them to talk. That would form a potentially dangerous escalation of a protest that has so far been marked by its peacefulness.

Chinese authorities, meanwhile, are seeking to raise pressure on protesters inside Hong Kong, in hopes others in the city will grow tired of the occupation of their streets and agitate for it to end. Late Wednesday, Beijing banned new Hong Kong bookings by mainland tour groups, eliminating an important source of tourist revenue, while also further constraining the ability of other Chinese to make contact with the protesters. China, analysts believe, wants the demonstrators gone by next week.

Beijing also reiterated, through an editorial in the Communist-run People's Daily newspaper, its "unshakeable" commitment to the controversial 2017 election proposal that helped trigger the protests.

The electoral proposal gives China control over who appears on the ballot for Hong Kong's powerful chief executive position. Protesters want a more open nomination process.

But there is little risk at home for China in standing intransigent against the demands from a few hundred thousand people on the streets of one of its best-known cities.

In part, that's because a lack of mainland interest in the Hong Kong protests has given Beijing less to lose: Great numbers of its people don't know about what is happening in the city – or don't care.

The Mandarin-speaking visitors to the protest site, for example, were not mainlanders. One was born in China but now lives in the U.S. Another is now in Hong Kong: A freelance journalist, Natalie Wang had come in hopes of finding other mainlanders. For five hours, she roamed the grounds, searching. She came across just one who, fearful of reprisals for attending, refused to give his name.

Ms. Wang was shocked. "I think a lot of people actually don't know what's going on here," she said. "I guess the most interesting thing to them is just shopping."

The protests sweeping Hong Kong have coincided with China's week-long National Day holiday and the flood of tourists that accompanies it. This year, Hong Kong's travel industry expects 1.1 million mainland Chinese to flock to the city.

That offers a gilded opportunity, many protesters believe, to share the cause of democratic reform with Chinese who, at home, are prevented by government from learning about such things.

Yet in Hong Kong, such hopes have largely not been borne out.

In conversations with nearly a dozen mainland Chinese in the city's luxury-brand-studded Causeway Bay district, few had any interest in the protests, and some had no idea they were happening, despite shopping for iPhones and expensive bags just a block away.

"This Coach bag is 2,000 RMB cheaper than one in Shanghai," said an excited Lian Jiaxin, a 21-year-old from Fuzhou, China. (That's roughly $360.)

Li Chenkui, a 45-year-old in sales from Shanghai has for years used specialized software to circumvent Chinese Internet censorship. "It's a good thing people are expressing their different opinions," he said.

But he had little interest in seeing for himself – even if that was partly unavoidable, with protesters blocking streets near popular shopping areas in Causeway Bay. That meant mainland visitors encountered demonstrators, although not always with much sympathy. "It's quite disruptive," said Wu Jian, a 24-year-old Shanghai oil worker. "I don't really know what they are fighting for, what their agenda is or their goals. The only impression I have is that it has quite an impact on traffic."

Ding Jiawei, a 29-year-old from Shanghai, said he was surprised to find that the protests were "very orderly," although he wasn't much interested in learning more, or in seeing mainland Chinese be granted more freedom to petition for their own demands.

"I'm comfortable with the current situation at home right now," he said.

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