Student leaders called for a surge of people to come to the site of a Hong Kong democracy protest Thursday evening, as images of police carrying riot control gear prompted new concerns over conflict on the sixth day of demonstrations.
With protesters massing around his downtown office, Hong Kong's embattled chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, issued a speech on Thursday night refusing calls for his resignation. Mr. Leung appointed chief secretary Carrie Lam to meet with students, and said police would exercise restraint if protesters did not charge police cordons.
Earlier, shortly after 5 p.m., police began to move new officers and supplies onto the grounds of the chief executive’s office building. Scuffles ensued when protesters stepped aside to let an ambulance through, only to have two police vans follow them in.
Early Friday, student leaders agreed to meet the government to discuss their demands.
Tensions were further elevated when other police arrived bearing supplies whose labelling, seen by a Globe and Mail reporter, suggested it contained tear gas and large 38-millimetre rubber bullets. Police were also seen walking with masks and riot shields.
The addition of people and supplies is a sharp shift from the recent days, when police have been nearly invisible around the downtown protest site, where hundreds of thousands of people have come on each of the last two nights. The protests mark a showdown with China over whether Hong Kong people should be given the unfettered right to choose their political leadership or whether Beijing should, as it has said it will, hold the power to screen who the city can vote for.
The demonstrations mark one of the most serious challenges to Chinese authority since the Tiananmen protests of 1989, and have been met by an unbending response from Beijing, which has called them illegal.
With neither side offering any room for compromise, protest leaders on Thursday night prepared the crowd for what could be an unpredictable night ahead.
“We think the police may take action soon,” warned Joshua Wong, the most prominent of the students leaders. “Call more friends and people to come here to protect everyone.”
He added: “If you want to force the chief executive to give us more democracy, we need to stay here until tomorrow morning.”
Lester Sham, another student leader, called on those “willing to support us” to move from the street to the areas around the nearby chief executive building.
Benny Tai, one of the three founders of the Occupy Central movement that initially proposed protests, added: “we are going to fight for a free, real election rather than a false election.”
The leaders also sought to instate a more formal hierarchy, showing the crowd T-shirts and armbands meant to identify those in charge.
The scuffles outside the chief executive building highlighted the fragile nature of protests that have, since police used tear gas Sunday and early Monday, been peaceful. When police reinforcements began to arrive, protesters put their hands up and blocked their way, amid chanting and angry shouting.
Calm was restored when a protester with a megaphone urged the crowd: “we should stop arguing or something bad will happen. Step back.”
Yet it’s clear both sides are gearing up for at least the possibility of more open confrontation. The additional police presence arrived just hours before a midnight deadline student leaders have set for the Chinese government to respond to their demands, which include the removal of Mr. Leung.
China on Thursday rejected that demand, in a front-page People’s Daily editorial that said Beijing was determined to support the Hong Kong “government led by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, and support Hong Kong police to handle illegal activities in accordance with the law.”
In Washington, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated the Chinese view that protesters had “illegally gathered in the busiest streets and districts in Hong Kong and severely disrupted social order,” according to the People’s Daily.
Phill Hynes, a political risk analyst with Intelligent Security Solutions, said it looks as if police are preparing to protect the chief executive’s office against an incursion by students.
“They’re going to throw a ring of riot police at it,” he said. “The prospect for it to get really ugly exists, because it will get very confrontational.” He faulted the student leaders for issuing an “incitement to confrontation,” which he said was “not a very sensible thing to do.”
It remains unclear, however, when students may attempt to occupy government buildings. In an interview Yvonne Leung, another of the student leaders, said the action would not take place until later on Friday.
“You should expect it to happen tomorrow in the daytime,” she said Thursday.
Yet as evening fell, thousands gathered at the main entrance to the chief executive’s office. “We have come to this area to block the entrance,” said Koon Kwan, a volunteer with a megaphone. “We want to give pressure to CY Leung.” But, he said, he did not expect an immediate call to storm the building.
“We are blocking it, not taking it over,” he said. “We won't attack the police. We won’t do anything to harm anybody, including the police.”
The change in atmosphere, however, was palpable, with protesters donning masks and coating faces in plastic wrap as protection against possible tear gas.
“People are nervous because they are expecting tension which might end in violence,” said one protester who gave his name only as Mark.
With reports from Reuters and Associated Press