- - Monday, September 29, 2014

HONG KONG — Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators clogged Hong Kong streets overnight into Tuesday, defying Beijing in what is quickly becoming China’s biggest political challenge since the Tiananmen Square revolt more than two decades ago.

Protests that began last week as a student boycott of schools and universities erupted into massive demonstrations in the city’s financial district over the weekend, bringing a police crackdown with tear gas and batons.

By Monday evening, the situation had calmed, and the protests had morphed into an almost partylike atmosphere with songs and dancing.

Protesters are rallying against China’s decision to require candidates for Hong Kong’s leadership to be approved by a pro-Beijing panel, instead of allowing city voters to choose their leaders without the Communist Party’s imprimatur. Demonstrators said the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” — for the umbrellas protesters use to protect themselves from the elements and pepper spray — will continue until Hong Kong achieves self-determination.

“The people of Hong Kong are showing their determination to obtain their basic political rights, the right to a free elections,” said Evelyn Char, a protester who has been demonstrating since last week. “It is really important for us to show Beijing at this point that we won’t accept a chief executive that is really chosen by Beijing.”

China took control of the former British colony in 1997, granting Hong Kong certain civil liberties via a mini-constitution and the expectation of free elections in 2017 for its top post — a vote that started being planned last year.

But in proposed guidelines for the vote published in late August, China’s leadership granted the “one man, one vote” rule but nixed an open nomination process for candidates for chief executive.

China wants to limit the number of candidates and make sure those selected are vetted by a committee the way it currently is done — by pro-Beijing elites — essentially leaving the top post under the control of the mainland Communist Party.

A second round of public consultation on democratic reforms is set to begin in October, but pro-democratic lawmakers in the Legislative Council intend to boycott it, saying Beijing’s proposal leaves too little room for discussion.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has urged lawmakers to accept Beijing’s deal, arguing that the cost of giving it up is too high.

On Monday, Mr. Leung pleaded with protesters to go home. But demonstrators countered that they want him to resign.

“[We’re here] to fight for a fair election system and to force CY Leung to step down,” said Ms. Char.

Hong Kong’s business elites also have pleaded with protesters to recognize the consequences of the boycotts and strikes, saying Beijing won’t change its mind.

Chinese officials have called the protests “illegal” and are concerned about the demonstrations spreading, say analysts.

“The Chinese authorities do not want to see it spread to the mainland,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian and political analyst. “It has put tremendous pressure on Beijing, which is most worried about a domino effect.”

Beijing’s increasingly hard-line leadership, which has clamped down over the past year and a half on dissent and calls for democracy, is highly unlikely to agree to any discussion about political reforms in Hong Kong even though it doesn’t want bloodshed. But it will use as much force as it deems necessary to ensure stability, Mr. Zhang added.

“After all, it believes that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, instead of elections,” he said. “It will return to this simplistic law of the jungle.”

Meanwhile, the international community is worried about a repeat of the brutal crackdown on Tiananmen Square protests 25 years ago, in which hundreds of demonstrators were killed in Beijing.

Leaders in Taiwan, which China has long considered a rebel province it owns, were especially watchful.

“[China’s leadership] must listen and listen closely to the demands of Hong Kong’s people,” said Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, whose own government has developed closer ties with Beijing.

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