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Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters were on a collision course with Hong Kong’s leaders Tuesday as both sides in the so-called "Umbrella Revolution" refused to back down ahead of the Chinese National Day holiday.
Demonstrators braved hot, humid weather to extend street blockades, stockpile supplies and erect barricades as the Occupy Central movement issued a Wednesday deadline for Hong Kong’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying to stand down over Beijing’s announcement that it would vet candidates in 2017 elections.
But Leung remained defiant, despite the fifth day of unprecedented civil disobedience. “The central government will not rescind its decision," he said.
Even larger crowds are expected to flood the streets Wednesday, which coincides with a national holiday marking the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The government has already canceled a planned fireworks display.
Oscar Lai Man-lok, a spokesman for student group Scholarism, told the South China Morning Post he will lead dozens of students to attend Wednesday's flag-raising ceremony at Golden Bauhinia Square. They will dress in white and wear yellow ribbons, he said.
Protesters passed a peaceful night Monday, singing as they blocked streets in several parts of Hong Kong. They also staged a brief "mobile light" vigil, waving their glowing cell phones.
"We aren't going to do whatever student leaders or others tell us to do," Chloe Cheung, a 20-year-old student at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, told The Associated Press. "The people on the streets are here because we've made the decision ourselves and we will only leave when we have achieved something. We are waiting for the government to respond to our demands for democracy and a say in what the elections will be like."
Protesters massed in at least four of Hong Kong's busiest areas, including Admiralty, where Hong Kong's government is headquartered, the Central business district, the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok in Kowloon.
The demonstrations 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.
"We are not scared. We will stay here tonight. Tonight is the most important," Sui-ying Cheng, 18, a freshman at Hong Kong University's School of Professional and Continuing Education, told Reuters ahead of Wednesday’s holiday. "Many powerful people from the mainland will come to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government won't want them to see this, so the police must do something.”
The White House signaled its support for the protesters, but has so far stopped short of publicly criticizing China over the issue. “We support internationally-recognized fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression around the world,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
“We've expressed — we have been in touch with China about our support for universal suffrage,” she added. “Obviously, as we have concerns, we will raise them.”
The movement presents Beijing's Communist Party with a difficult challenge. Cracking down too hard could shake confidence in market-driven Hong Kong, which has a separate legal system from the rest of China. Not reacting firmly enough, however, could embolden dissidents on the mainland.
Alex Chow, the leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said the protests, which began as a gathering of students and the "Occupy Central" movement, had become much broader and attracted Hong Kongers of all walks of life. "It has evolved into a civil movement," Chow said.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.