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HONG KONG — Pro-democracy activists heckled and jeered Hong Kong’s leader Leung Chun-ying Wednesday as he drank Champagne at an event marking China's National Day — just hours after refusing to meet “Umbrella Revolution” protest leaders.
Hundreds yelled at Leung to step down then fell silent and turned their backs outside the flag-raising ceremony honoring the 65th anniversary of the founding of communist China in 1949. Helicopters flying the Chinese flag overhead were greeted with boos and thumbs-down gestures.
Inside the event, local lawmaker Paul Zimmerman raised a yellow umbrella — the symbol of the mostly student-led civil disobedience movement that has posed the most serious challenge to Beijing's authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997. Pro-democracy lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung shouted for Leung to step down but was bundled away by security.
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The acts of defiance came after a midnight deadline imposed by protesters came and went without any response from Leung or his office. Student leaders later warned that if Leung didn't resign by the end of Thursday they would step up their actions, including occupying several important government buildings. Lester Shum, vice secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said there was "no room for dialogue" with Leung because he ordered police to fire tear gas at protesters over the weekend.
Crowds that have blocked the city’s streets for at least five days gathered once again Wednesday ahead for what some fear could be a flashpoint later — as neither side showed sign of compromise. At 7:30 p.m. local time (7:30 a.m. ET) Wednesday the numbers swelled further.
"At this stage, we’re going forever. We'll fight to the end," protester Gary Lee, 20, told NBC News. "We just want peace. We don't need any violence, we don't need any pepper spraying here, we don't need any cops here. Just us [speaking] to the public: I want freedom, I want to vote to achieve a leader."
Secretary of State John Kerry was due to discuss the protests with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during talks in Washington on Wednesday.
British Prime Minister David Cameron also planned to summon the Chinese ambassador to discuss the dispute, saying it is essential that Hong Kong's people have a genuine right to choose their top leader.
In a speech at the flag-raising ceremony, Leung made no direct mention of the protesters, who have blocked streets for days to press demands for genuine democratic reforms for Hong Kong's first direct elections in 2017 to choose the city's top leader. Beijing has restricted the voting reforms, requiring candidates to be screened by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing local elites similar to the one that handpicked Leung for the job.
Leung told voters it is better to agree to Beijing's plans for nominating candidates and to hold an election, than to stick with the current system of having an Election Commission choose the chief executive.
"It is definitely better to have universal suffrage than not," Leung said. "It is definitely better to have the chief executive elected by 5 million eligible voters than by 1,200 people. And it is definitely better to cast your vote at the polling station than to stay home and watch on television the 1,200 members of the Election Committee cast their votes."
Leung's rejection of the student demands dashed hopes for a quick resolution of the standoff that has blocked city streets and forced some schools and offices to close.
Nor has there been official word from Hong Kong’s leaders about what happens next. Asked about the protests, Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Hong Kong central government’s liaison office, said that “the sun rises as usual,” according to the South China Morning Post.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.