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Follow The Globe's Nathan Vanderklippe (@nvanderklippe) in Hong Kong for updates on the "Umbrella Revolution." Get caught up first with The Globe's simple primer on the protests.

They came by the hundreds of thousands to downtown Hong Kong, chanting slogans, painting banners, singing songs and listening to speeches.

Huddling beneath umbrellas through outbursts of driving rain, so many people joined a swelling protest that they spread over a 3.5-kilometre stretch of broad urban road, crowding onto bridges and settling onto sidewalks.

Theirs was a resounding display of dissatisfaction with Chinese rule that stands to redefine the relationship between the city and mainland authorities. In their numbers and in their scrupulous commitment to peaceful protest, they dared an uncompromising Beijing to respond to what is becoming an increasingly serious challenge to its authority over Hong Kong.

"We are the people of Hong Kong, and we want a better Hong Kong," said Joey Chan, a 22-year-old law student who first joined protests on Friday. He has since spent nights sleeping on pavement, holding ground for an occupation whose modest beginnings have now swollen into a broad people's protest seeking fuller democratic rights than Beijing has offered.

"It is a revolution," said Ming Wong, a 17-year-old secondary student with Red Cross training who is volunteering to do first aid. "This is not fun. We must take it seriously," he said.

As Tuesday night gave way to Wednesday morning, the Chinese National Day that marks the 65th anniversary of Communist rule, the thousands of students who began the sit-in were joined by large numbers of older people, among them flight attendants, bankers, architects and housewives drawn to the cause.

Beijing for now seems ready to wait out the protests, with virtually no police present Tuesday, and holidays on Wednesday and Thursday that will mute the impact of protests on Hong Kong's economic function. Chinese authorities nonetheless face a delicate situation in the city, and the prospect that so many are now engaged that protests in coming days will grow in size. The possibility of greater confrontation will rise in coming days, alongside authorities' eagerness to clear streets and contain protests as people return to work Friday.

Leung Chun-ying, the current chief executive, on Tuesday night called for people to immediately abandon their occupation. "The impact on the value of Hong Kong's international image is becoming greater and greater," he wrote in a blog post. "I hope you will all think about this."

Mr. Leung has declined demands he meet directly with protest leaders, offering no sign of a compromise position. Beijing has called the protests an illegal gathering conducted by radicals who have been influenced by foreign groups seeking to undermine China.

That hard line has stoked further resentment, adding to the size of crowds and the stakes they are seeking. The presence of an older generation on the streets has changed the calculus for authorities, whose initial response – firing tear gas and pepper spray at protesters on Sunday – continues to prompt others to come to the streets.

"The future of Hong Kong is being defined this week," said Phill Hynes, a political risk analyst with Intelligent Security Solutions who is in the city watching the protests grow. "It's morphed into something that has its own dynamic. Nobody can control it."

The protest's strength, he said, has placed Beijing "in a corner." Mainland authorities and their Hong Kong counterparts have held a rigid line, refusing to bend on a 2017 election proposal that would see Beijing play a key role in selecting who will appear on the ballot for the city's powerful chief executive position.

Meanwhile, students are openly discussing steps to escalate their protest, including the possibility of storming government buildings – a move that would drastically change the calculations for Beijing, and the nature of its response, even if heavy tactics would echo broadly.

"The world will judge what the Chinese government really is," said Rainbow Cheng, a 45-year-old mother who brought her two boys, aged 4 and 9, to the protest.

Fears of a harsh crackdown were rooted in the parallels between protesters' aims and those of students 25 years ago in mainland China, whose quest for democratic reform ended in the bloody government-ordered attack around Tiananmen Square.

"Hong Kong has picked up the baton and is leading the pro-democracy movement of China now," said Rose Tang, who was among the student leaders in 1989. "Hong Kong is becoming the catalyst to kick-start the end of an era – the Chinese communist's one-party dictatorship."

The protesters themselves acknowledge that may be a hard aim to achieve.

"Frankly speaking, I think it's not possible to change their mind. But we do what we can," said Jacky Lau, a 35-year-old insurance agent who on Tuesday told his wife he was leaving home for three days to join the protests, where he managed a neatly organized tent distributing donated water. "At least maybe 20 years later we can say, in 2014 we did something to try to make a change."

And they have done it in a meticulous and uniquely Hong Kong fashion, with small armies of volunteers setting up large numbers of first aid centres, and distribution areas for water, umbrellas and raincoats. Some walked through crowds, offering bread and crackers, while others spritzed cooling mist in the humid heat. At each crossing of road barriers, young men and women offered helping hands to those crossing. Signs of defiance were joined by apologies scrawled on cardboard for the inconvenience caused to others. What has been called the Umbrella Revolution could as well be dubbed the Protest of Politeness, amid a burgeoning of ideological optimism in a city normally defined by its conservative dedication to the making of fortunes.

"This is hopeful. I have never been so happy in the last 30 years," said Edmund Wong, a 56-year-old retired financial services worker. He held hope that even larger protests would emerge on Wednesday, National Day, creating a potent symbol of dissatisfaction on a date China's Communist Party has devoted to celebrating its rule.

"If we can last at least until tomorrow, I think someone has to step down," he said Tuesday afternoon. "And if we can replace the government – or at least part of the government – we stand a chance of forcing the Chinese central government to rethink their policy toward us," he said.