Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Protesters Up Ante on Eve of China’s National Day

Elizabeth Barber / Hong Kong Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 7.23.03 PM

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 9.21.53 AMProtesters take part in a rally on a street outside of Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong.Anthony Kwan—Getty Images

Wednesday marks the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China

Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators continued to clog central Hong Kong on Tuesday, as the movement’s leaders vowed to maintain their campaign of civil disobedience until the city’s Chief Executive (CE) resigns.

In speeches before the teeming crowd in ritzy Admiralty district, leaders of the Hong Kong Students Federation and Occupy Central threatened to expand the protests if Leung Chun-ying, who holds a position similar to mayor, refuses to step down. “[Leung Chun-ying] is not in control anymore,” Alex Chow, the leader of the student federation, told the press.

The groups also raised the possibility of increased labor strikes, in an escalation of their confrontation with the governments of both Beijing and Hong Kong. “The protests are accelerating because the government is doing less and less,” said Chan Kin-man, one of the leaders of Occupy Central, as he addressed the crowd. Behind him lay several umbrellas painted with the phrases “popvote” and “join us.”

The groups on Tuesday also urged their throngs of supporters to continue the sit-in until their demands are met, contradicting an earlier statement by Chan, who had told TIME the previous evening it’s “unrealistic” to expect protesters to continue to occupy key downtown locations for much longer.

Although Chan backtracked Tuesday, the confusion demonstrates the movement is made up of stakeholders with “different interests and aspirations,” says Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Center for China Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He cautioned that protesters “cannot afford to fight amongst themselves because they face a very powerful enemy.”

Since British colonial rule ended in 1997, Hong Kong has been run according to the “one country, two systems” principle and enjoys various freedoms and considerable autonomy compared with mainland China. However, many in the Special Administrative Region accuse Beijing of increasingly meddling in the territory’s affairs.

On Wednesday, China celebrates the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Although this day of pomp is also typically one of popular protest in Hong Kong, the sheer scale of the current demonstration, and intractable nature of its demands, is clearly exacerbating an already strained relationship.

“In China people think Hong Kong belongs to China. But people in Hong Kong think that Hong Kong is part of China, but belongs to the world,” Julian Lam, a 20-year-old student, tells TIME.

Chao Seng, a 57-year-old private chauffeur, says the Hong Kong government just “wants to polish China’s shoes,” adding that he accepted the governing style of the British and does not approve of Chinese rule. “I’m not from China, I’m from Hong Kong. Every year when they enjoy [National Day], I have no feeling.”

Though protest leaders now say that their principal demand is for Leung to step down, they reiterated that their secondary objective is for Beijing to let Hong Kongers choose their CE by a popular vote in 2017 — and so reversing an Aug. 31 decision by the Communist Party’s Standing Committee that insisted all candidates must be approved by a committee widely perceived as loyal to Beijing.

“If CY Leung steps down it will be a big change,” says student Natalie Chan, 26. “The universal suffrage is something we can’t [control] because the Communist Party is very powerful.”

On Tuesday, Leung insisted that he would not resign and that Beijing would not budge in its insistence of vetting future holders of his job. “The central government will not rescind its decision,” he said.

As the protest leaders addressed the crowd Tuesday, with a huge orange banner reading “Can U Hear The People Sing” hanging nearby, thousands of demonstrators in black T-shirts roused from listlessness, ending their naps and putting packages of crackers aside. One group of students popped their laptops closed and put away the schoolwork they’d brought out.

The protests, which began with a student class walkout last Monday, now represent a mosaic of Hong Kong society. Asked for how long he would support the students, the 65-year-old Eddie Wong replied, “Forever,” adding, “I will be here, I will support this always.”

Numbers swelled after local people grew incensed that police fired 87 tear gas canisters at protesters on Sunday. “To be honest, I didn’t really support this, since I’m not really into politics,” says university student Stephanie Cheung, 20. “But then I saw how the police reacted to unarmed protesters. Now I’m here fighting against violence and how the government treats people.”

Late Tuesday, the heavens opened and umbrellas, adopted as the symbol of the protests, resumed their usual function — yet the seasonal downpours failed to dampen the anyone’s spirits, and the resilient crowds chanted “We will stay here until the end despite the weather!”

Over the last few days, supplies donated by well-wishers — including water, chocolate cake and bananas — piled in the protest’s multiple hotspots have not dwindled, but grown. Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong media mogul and frequent critic of Beijing, told TIME that he did not see the demonstrations ceasing anytime soon. “There’s no compromise for anyone involved,” he said.

—With reporting by David Stout, Rishi Iyengar and Helen Regan / Hong Kong