TIME world affairs

Xi Jinping Could Be China’s Last Communist Ruler

HONG KONG-CHINA-POLITICS-DEMOCRACY
Pro-democracy protestors gather in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on October 1, 2014. XAUME OLLEROS—AFP/Getty Images

Larry Diamond is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Director of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

At this point, China can neither negotiate nor repress the mass demonstrations

The mammoth protests that have gripped Hong Kong for the past several days have implications far beyond this Special Administrative Region of more than 7 million people. In rejecting Beijing’s plan to allow only sham elections for the next chief executive of Hong Kong, in mobilizing tens of thousands of people into the streets for several days running, and in fashioning a peaceful symbol of resistance and restraint (the umbrella) in the face of an inflammatory overreaction by the police, the youth-led demonstrators have posed the most serious challenge to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party since the massacre in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago.

China’s Communist rulers have only themselves to blame for the political crisis in Hong Kong. Since it reverted from British colonial rule to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, Hong Kong has enjoyed significant autonomy and civil freedom under the principle of “one country, two systems.” During these last 17 years, Hong Kongers have waited patiently for Beijing to deliver on the Basic Law’s promise of “gradual and orderly progress” toward “the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” When Beijing announced in 2004 that Hong Kong was “not yet ready” to democratically elect its Chief Executive in 2007, or its legislature in 2008, many in Hong Kong were bitterly disappointed. But people waited hopefully for 2012, or 2017 at the latest.

The recent eruption of popular outrage was prompted by Beijing’s decision, announced at the end of August, to defer indefinitely the dream of democratic self-governance in Hong Kong. China’s rulers have now delivered an Iranian-style interpretation of “universal suffrage”: everyone can vote, but only for candidates approved by the real rulers. Instead of “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong is getting “one country, one autocracy,” with increasing concentration of economic power and shrinking media and academic freedom.

Hong Kong’s youthful demonstrators are economically worried, but even more so, they are politically indignant. Many, like the 17-year-old student protest leader Joshua Wong, were born after the handover and raised in a prosperous, civically vibrant, and open society. They grew up tweeting and texting, and they see democratic self-governance as both their natural right and their constitutional promise. Many older Hong Kongers remember colonial rule, and cherish the civil freedoms and rule of law that they now see eroding under the lengthening shadow of economic and political control from Beijing. No one knows what percentage of Hong Kong’s population is willing to risk prosperity to press democratic demands to the limit. But hundreds of thousands of protestors and sympathizers view Beijing’s political intransigence as an existential threat to Hong Kong’s future.

This was an avoidable crisis. Over the years, many creative ideas have been floated to realize “gradual and orderly progress” toward democracy. China’s Communist leaders could have negotiated with moderate Hong Kong democrats to gradually expand the range of candidates permitted to contest Chief Executive elections, and to move in stages to a fully directly elected legislature (30 of the 70 members are now elected by narrow functional constituencies). Political compromise could have fashioned a popular majority accepting patient progress. What Hong Kong got instead was no negotiations and no progress, but rather an authoritarian imposition thinly masquerading as popular sovereignty.

Beijing’s intransigence was never solely about Hong Kong, and neither are the current protests. This is a struggle for the future of China itself. President Xi and his fellow Party bosses are consumed with fear that they will meet the same fate as Mikhail Gorbachev if they do not maintain tight, centralized political control. Xi will pursue economic reform. He will try to purge the party and state of brazen corruption (while also purging his rivals along the way). But political reform is ruled out. So, even, is discussion (or teaching or tweeting) about such concepts as “universal values,” “freedom of speech,” “civil society” and “judicial independence.

China is changing rapidly in the wake of rapid economic growth. A civil society is slowly rising, alongside a pragmatic and more independent-minded business class. People now debate issues through social media, even with state controls. The middle class is traveling and gaining exposure to democratic ideas and freedoms, most dangerously, in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Ironically, during this long holiday week when China celebrates its National Day (and now the 65th anniversary of the Communist Revolution), many Chinese vacationing in Hong Kong are suddenly watching a very different kind of revolution.

China’s rulers are now stuck in a trap of their own making. If they brutally repress mass demonstrations, as they did a quarter century ago, they will gravely damage their international legitimacy, wreck prospects for closer relations with Taiwan, and destroy the civic fabric of Hong Kong. If they do what they should have done months ago — negotiate — they fear they will look to be capitulating to mass pressure, thereby inviting more of it in a country where hundreds of local-level protests erupt daily. Thus they will probably wait, hoping the protests will ebb, while preserving the option of dumping the current Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, as a sacrificial lamb.

If the protests persist and grow, China’s Communist rulers will face an awful choice, and they may well repeat the tragic mistake of 1989. But this is not the China of 25 years ago. Xi Jinping can no more will an emergent civil society out of existence than King Canute could command the tides of the sea to recede. But alas, King Canute understood the natural limits to his power. Xi Jinping does not appear to do so, and this is why he could well be China’s last Communist ruler.

Larry Diamond is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Director of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Hong Kong

Timeline: Hong Kong’s Struggle for Democracy

Once ruled by the British, now under China, the people of Hong Kong have long agitated for greater rights. Here are some key moments in the movement's history.

TIME apps

Hong Kong’s Protesters Don’t Need the Internet to Chat With One Another

Sit In Protest Continues In Hong Kong Despite Chief Executive's Calls To Withdraw
A protester waves her cell phone in the air outside the Hong Kong Government Complexon October 1, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong. Chris McGrath—Getty Images

FireChat connects directly to other protesters' phones, building a massive network

If you’ve ever been crammed into a stadium alongside thousands of screaming football or music fans, you already know what the tens of thousands of demonstrators pouring into Hong Kong’s this week are learning: When you pack that many people into a tiny area, your phone’s Internet grinds to a halt.

Smartphones should make it easier to organize protests, but they’re as good as bricks when cell towers get overloaded with traffic or when governments decide to flip the switch. Hong Kong has seen both of these happen: Thousands of people on the street means mobile Internet is useless in packed areas, while Chinese authorities are blocking Instagram on the mainland, favored by Chinese dissidents because it was one of the few social networks not blocked in the country.

In the face of these hangups, Hong Kong’s demonstrators have turned to FireChat, a smartphone app that allows users to communicate even when they can’t get online or send texts. Unlike chat programs that work over the Internet, FireChat connects directly to other nearby users within up to about 250 feet. More people in range can then join the chat, extending the network even further. Pretty soon you can get up to a few thousand people chatting away, all without anybody connected to the Internet.

FireChat is based on mesh networking, in which every device on a network works as a node for expanding that network. The idea’s been around for decades, now popular as a way to communicate during disasters like hurricanes. But Hong Kong shows it’s useful during civil disobedience, too. Some 200,000 people there downloaded the app between Sunday and Tuesday, said Micha Benoliel, CEO of Open Garden, the company behind FireChat, sending it skyrocketing to the top of the region’s app store charts.

Speaking from Hong Kong, Benoliel told TIME FireChat’s sudden popularity there isn’t a “complete surprise” because it was also popular with Taiwanese protesters last March. It’s also the latest in a long line of technologies that helped fuel wide-scale protests. Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution was dubbed the “Twitter Revolution” thanks to protesters’ penchant for organizing via Twitter, likewise 2011’s Occupy Wall Street was a hashtag before it was a street protest. Facebook and YouTube, meanwhile, have brought us to the front lines of the Arab Spring and Syria’s long-fought civil war, even being used as recruiting tools by anti-government rebels and jihadi groups. Where Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all fall short, however, lies in their need for an Internet connection to work — not the case for FireChat.

Still, FireChat isn’t perfect for protesters. The chat rooms are open, making it easy for a first-timer to join — but that first-timer could also be a local authority poking around at the goings-on. However, Benoliel said the company is working on protester-minded updates like private messaging and encryption, as Open Garden advocates for “freedom of speech and access to information.”

“If this application can help in this way, it’s very aligned with the mission of the company,” Benoliel said. “[FireChat] hasn’t been built for that purpose, but if it can help people in that situation, we are very supportive of what’s happening here in Hong Kong.”

TIME Hong Kong

Watch What It’s Like to Be at the Hong Kong Protests

Tens of thousands of people descended onto the streets of Hong Kong to demand change in the electoral system. Support for the "Occupy Central" movement grew after police used tear gas on protesters on Sunday

TIME Foreign Policy

Washington Issues Statement Backing Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Protesters

Student protesters gesture outside the Golden Bauhinia Square, venue of the official flag-raising ceremony for celebrations of China's National Day in Hong Kong
Student protesters gesture outside the Golden Bauhinia Square, venue of the official flag-raising ceremony for celebrations of China's National Day in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014. Tyrone Siu—Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to discuss the ongoing protests with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Wednesday

The White House issued a statement of support for “the aspirations of the Hong Kong people” on Tuesday, in response to a petition urging the U.S. government to put pressure on the Chinese government.

The Obama Administration’s comments reflect a gradual toughening of its response to Beijing, as the Chinese Communist Party refuses to heed Hong Kong protesters’ loudening call for free and fair elections amid swelling demonstrations in the financial powerhouse.

“The United States supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong in accordance with the Basic Law,” the statement said. It continued that Hong Kong residents should have “a genuine choice of candidates representative of the voters’ will.”

U.S. officials also said Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry will discuss the protests racking Hong Kong with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a meeting in Washington on Wednesday, Reuters reports.

Meanwhile, the U.K. also solidified its position on the side of the protesters; Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg summoned the Chinese ambassador in order to convey the British government’s alarm at Beijing’s hardened dismissal of universal suffrage in Hong Kong. The territory was a British colony until 1997.

“It is essential that the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice of chief executive in 2017, through universal suffrage,” Clegg said, according to Sky News. Clegg also said he would “reiterate our position and seek reassurances from the Chinese government.”

Tens of thousands of people have flooded several of Hong Kong’s busiest districts, pledging to continue bringing traffic and commerce to a standstill until the Hong Kong and central governments meet two demands: Hong Kong’s top leader resigns, and Beijing grants the Special Administrative Region the right to freely elect a new one in 2017, as opposed to choosing from a list of candidates handpicked by a pro-Beijing committee.

The Chinese government has repeatedly accused the U.S. and British governments of meddling in its affairs and stirring up the protests; both countries’ officials have denied any involvement.

The original petition had asked the White House “to support Hong Kong democracy and prevent a second Tiananmen Square [massacre] in Hong Kong.” If a petition on the White House website collects more than 100,000 signatures within 30 days, it necessitates a response from the U.S. government. The petition boasted 196,942 signatures before it closed.

“We believe that an open society, with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law, is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity,” read the response.

The statement also reiterated White House comments made on Monday, urging “Hong Kong authorities to exercise restraint, and for protesters to express their views peacefully.”

Since police lobbed 87 tear-gas canisters at protesters bearing nothing but umbrellas on Sunday evening, the number of officers on the streets has been drastically scaled back, while the number of protesters, galvanized by the disproportionate response, has burgeoned.

At demonstrations outside a flag-raising ceremony on Wednesday to celebrate China’s National Day, protesters said they were intent on remaining peaceful, while also staying put until their demands are met.

“We will not stop them from celebrating,” said T. Wong, 35, a protester standing under a swarm of umbrellas near the ceremony. “But as they celebrate, we want them to listen to our voices.”

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Democracy Protesters Are Being Targeted by Malicious Spyware

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A father and son take a selfie with a mobile phone in front of a barricade in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014 Xaume Olleros—AFP/Getty Images

The culprit is "a very large organization or nation state," experts say

A computer virus that spies on Apple’s iPhone and iPad operating system is targeting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, according to tech experts.

Known as Xsser, the malicious software is capable of harvesting data including text messages, photos, data logs and passwords from mobile devices, Lacoon Mobile Security said Tuesday.

The spyware is hosted on the same Command and Control domain as an existing fake program for the Android operating system that was disguised as a protest-organizing app and distributed around Hong Kong last week.

“Cross-platform attacks that target both iOS and Android devices are rare, and indicate that this may be conducted by a very large organization or nation state,” said Lacoon in a statement.

Tens of thousands of people have paralyzed key areas of the city over the past few days in support of greater electoral freedom, much to the chagrin of the central government in Beijing.

TIME foreign affairs

The Needs of Hong Kong’s Silent Majority Are Being Ignored

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Three men on a pedestrian bridge look at an empty six lane road blocked by pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong on October 1, 2014. PHILIPPE LOPEZ—AFP/Getty Images

Regina Ip is a Hong Kong legislator, the city's former secretary for security, and chairperson of the New People's Party

As Hong Kong’s quest for democracy rapidly descended into chaos upon the official kickoff of the Occupy Central movement on Sept. 27, world media united to condemn China’s handling of Hong Kong people’s demands for democracy. Rarely has China’s most international city been the cause of more schadenfreude in the West.

How did Hong Kong’s democratic odyssey come to this pass? China said, in a decision by its highest authority in December 2007, that Hong Kong’s chief executive may be elected by universal suffrage in 2017. But its Basic Law for Hong Kong, enacted in 1990, also says that the method for selecting the chief executive must be specified in the light of “the actual situation and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.”

Hong Kong’s democracy advocates accuse Beijing of breach of faith, but Beijing officials stress that gradual and orderly progress and compliance with the Basic Law are paramount.

It is not as though Beijing were unaware of the potential for controversy. As 2017 approaches, the Occupy Central movement has been pressurizing Beijing into allowing politicians from the pan-democratic camp — the local term for pro-democracy politicians of different parties — to be nominated for the city’s top post. And since March 2013, Beijing has been sending a steady stream of senior officials to Hong Kong to draw a line in the sand: only those considered patriotic are allowed to be nominated. In a decision on Aug. 31, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee made a decision that the pan-democrats thought had all but ruled out their chance of securing a nomination.

In Beijing’s eyes, the pan-dems are after a form of independence. That is probably why authorities in Beijing took pains to issue a white paper in June, reminding Hong Kong people that the “high degree of autonomy” promised is a lower level of autonomy than full autonomy, let alone self-rule or independence.

Beijing understands too well that a democratically elected Hong Kong chief, who will be appointed by Beijing in name only, will not be answerable to it and might not be trusted to safeguard “China’s sovereignty, security and developmental interests.” Hong Kong’s chief executive is more powerful than a provincial party secretary and cannot be replaced at will by administrative appointment. The risks of installing a chief executive whom Beijing cannot trust in a porous, international city like Hong Kong are too great.

Thus, in Beijing’s eyes, the struggle for a more open system of nomination is a struggle for the control of Hong Kong. Beijing’s opponents will not take this lying down and are mobilizing large numbers of citizens, including many young people, to take to the street, causing massive disruption to the daily lives of Hong Kong people, economic losses and, above all, severe damage to Hong Kong’s image around the world.

Chanting democratic slogans and laying siege to major thoroughfares and government installations, the protesters appear to dwarf even the might of China. Yet, a core question has been left unanswered. What do the silent majority of Hong Kong really want? Do they really want an Umbrella Revolution that radically changes the nature of Hong Kong’s polity, or an open, free and stable environment to get on with building their lives? Will a democratically elected chief, irrespective of competence and relationship with China, be able to cure all ills?

As the two camps and two conflicting ideologies clash, the core interests of the Hong Kong people appear to be ignored.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Marks Chinese National Day With Demands for Political Reform

A protester holds up a placard which reads "Peace is our greatest weapon", outside the venue of the official flag-raising ceremony for celebrations of China's National Day, in Hong Kong
A protester holds up a placard that reads "Peace Is Our Greatest Weapon," outside the venue of the official flag-raising ceremony for celebrations of China's National Day in Hong Kong on Oct. 1, 2014 Tyrone Siu—Reuters

Ceremonial venue is besieged by democracy activists as city enters its fourth day of massive protests

Chaotic scenes stole the show from the pomp and spectacle of Chinese National Day celebrations in Hong Kong on Wednesday, as thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators harangued dignitaries and set up camp on the fringes of the city’s politically sacrosanct Golden Bauhinia Square.

Protesters in jeans and sneakers, many of whom had been on the streets all night, heckled a parade of the city’s oligarchs and tycoons as they attempted to enter the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center for ceremonial speeches.

At one point, the crowd, some wearing gas masks, linked arms and bellowed “Down with the Chinese Communist Party!” and “We want universal suffrage!”

“It’s China’s National Day, not Hong Kong’s,” protester Ivan Chau, 26, told TIME.

Simon Lee, 28, an IT worker, said he felt no love for China’s ruling party and felt more Hong Kong than Chinese. “Everyone agrees we are from Hong Kong,” he said.

Hong Kong has been given a broad degree of autonomy since the end of British colonial rule in 1997. But this sophisticated, freewheeling city of 7 million is deeply suspicious of Beijing and unable to freely choose its own leader.

Calls for democratic reform have built to a crescendo over the last five days, with tens of thousands of protestors bringing several downtown locations to a standstill.

Demonstrators aim to force Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, to resign, and are calling for the Chief Executive to be elected by a popular vote in 2017.

Beijing has agreed to elections but only if the candidates (a maximum of three has been set) are first vetted by a 1,200-strong committee largely perceived as loyal to the mainland.

Such a caveat undermines the entire principle of the vote, say democracy activists, who have vowed to paralyze the city through a campaign of civil disobedience in order to foment change, braving police batons, tear gas and pepper spray.

Their movement has been dubbed the Umbrella Revolution after the umbrellas that demonstrators use to shield themselves from pepper spray.

“The Umbrella Revolution only has one ultimate goal: to have true democracy in Hong Kong,” said one protester.

Back inside the ceremony, one guest, district councilor Paul Zimmerman, made a bold display by unfurling a yellow umbrella in support of the protestors. Another guest, district councilor and former radio personality Pamela Peck, was entirely clad in yellow — the Umbrella Revolution’s symbolic color.

Other attendees toasted the “security and stability of Hong Kong,” while a patriotic song celebrating “Hong Kong’s close ties with the motherland,” in the words of the MC, was played in the lavish hall without irony.

The theme of this year’s celebrations was declared to be “Chinese Dreams.”

Outside, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers rouse from their slumber, ready for another day’s protest in pursuit of dreams of a very different kind.

— With reporting by Elizabeth Barber, David Stout, Helen Regan, Rishi Iyengar and Emily Rauhala / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

U.S. Students to Don Yellow in Support of Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement

Secondary school student wears a yellow ribbon pinned to her T-shirt during a rally against Beijing's election framework for Hong Kong, outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong
A secondary school student wears a yellow ribbon pinned to her T-shirt during a rally against Beijing's election framework for Hong Kong, outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Sept. 26, 2014. Tyrone Siu—Reuters

Campaign supports the tens of thousands who have taken to the street in the Chinese Special Administrative Region to demand universal suffrage

On Wednesday, as the People’s Republic of China celebrates its 65th anniversary, tens of thousands of American undergraduates from universities across the country will dress in yellow, the identifying color of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

The fight for unfettered elections in the former British colony has reached unprecedented levels over the past four days. Tens of thousands of demonstrators continue to besiege the city’s central business and government districts — braving police batons, tear gas and pepper spray — to demand democratic concessions from Beijing.

In a demonstration of solidarity, the Wear Yellow for Hong Kong campaign was launched by Heather Pickerell, who spent the majority of her childhood living in Hong Kong with her American father and Taiwanese mother before moving to New England three years ago as a freshman at Harvard.

The 21-year-old wasn’t “necessarily supportive” of the push for political reform at home, she says, until Beijing issued a White Paper in early June — a sprawling, 14,500-word tract — that effectively left Hong Kong with little doubt about who was in charge.

“Growing up, we had this innate hope that we’d someday have democracy in Hong Kong,” Pickerell told TIME late Monday night. “Now, I’m realistic. Whatever China wants to do, there’s nothing Hong Kong can do about it. The only real tool we have is international pressure and scrutiny.”

Wearing yellow, in other words, is secondary to the conversation she hopes it engenders. She is among the many who believe — or, at least, gravely hope — that the current groundswell of discontent in Hong Kong could encourage a new culture of domestic politics in China if the international response is loud and coherent enough to compel a change.

And so Pickerell created the Facebook event group on Thursday after delivering a dinner speech on the current situation in Hong Kong to several hundred of her peers in Mather House, her residence hall at Harvard. The page had around 300 members on Sunday — and then nearly 30,000 less than two days later.

A friend from Hong Kong at Yale then brought the solidarity practice to New Haven. It was swiftly embraced at Brown, where the Hong Kong Students’ Association had organized a national conference earlier in the spring to discuss the matter of political reform. Then to Pitzer and Wellesley and the University of Toronto, and now at around 50 other universities and counting.

“I saw the pictures of the protests on Facebook and read my friends’ tweets, and I really needed to do something,” Myron Lam, the Hong Konger who brought the campaign to Brown, where he is a senior, told TIME. “The last few days have shown that there is hope in Hong Kong, but we need to act, and show Beijing that the issue is on the international radar.”

TIME Hong Kong

What’s at Stake in Hong Kong

Voting restrictions and an ever-tightening Chinese policies are causing unrest amongst Hong Kongers

(HONG KONG) — Hong Kong’s leader refused to meet with pro-democracy demonstrators by their midnight deadline Tuesday, despite their threats to expand the protests that have clogged the streets with tens of thousands of people in the stiffest challenge to Beijing’s authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.

Protesters counted down to midnight and cheered as the deadline passed, but took no immediate action.

Britain’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, meanwhile, said Tuesday that he had summoned the Chinese ambassador to discuss the dispute, saying it was essential that Hong Kong’s people have a genuine right to choose their top leader.

“I am extremely concerned about the recent events in Hong Kong. Britain and China have solemn obligations to the people of Hong Kong to preserve their rights and freedoms,” Clegg said in a statement.

China took control of Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that guaranteed the 7 million residents of the city semi-autonomy, Western-style civil liberties and eventual democratic freedoms that are denied to Chinese living on the communist-ruled mainland.

The protesters want a reversal of a decision by China’s government to screen all candidates in the territory’s first direct elections, scheduled for 2017 — a move they view as reneging on a promise that the chief executive will be chosen through “universal suffrage.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s rejection of the student demands dashed hopes for a quick resolution of the five-day standoff that has blocked city streets and forced some schools and offices to close.

It was unclear what action the demonstrators would take next. There were no immediate speeches or official statements from the protesters, who chanted “Jiayou! Jiayou!” — or “Keep it up!” — while waving their cellphones with the LED flashlights sparkling in the dark.

Earlier Tuesday, Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the organizer of the university class boycotts that led to the street protests, said the students were considering various options if their demands were not met, including widening the protests, pushing for a labor strike and occupying a government building.

As concern mounted over how the standoff might eventually end, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has taken a hard line against any perceived threat to the Communist Party’s hold on power, vowed in a National Day speech to “steadfastly safeguard” Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.

China’s government has condemned the student-led protests as illegal, though so far it has not overtly intervened, leaving Hong Kong authorities to handle the crisis.

Despite the hardening rhetoric from both sides, the mood Tuesday night was festive. Few police were evident, and those who were present appeared relaxed. The crowds were expected to grow, with most people off work both Wednesday and Thursday for public holidays.

Both sides appeared to be waiting out the standoff, as police continued the light-handed approach to the protests they adopted after their use of tear gas and pepper spray over the weekend failed to drive out tens of thousands of people occupying streets near the government headquarters. The sit-ins instead spread to the financial district and other areas.

“We are not afraid of riot police, we are not afraid of tear gas, we are not afraid of pepper spray. We will not leave until Leung Chun-ying resigns. We will not give up! We will persevere until the end!” Lester Shum, another student leader, shouted to a crowd at Admiralty, near Hong Kong’s waterfront.

Leung’s blunt rejection of the demands from the students was not surprising. China’s Communist leadership is wary of any conciliatory moves that might embolden dissidents and separatists on the mainland.

Occupy Central, a wider civil disobedience movement, said in a tweet that the pro-democracy protesters were demanding genuine democracy and Leung’s resignation. It said it would “announce new civil disobedience plans” on Wednesday.

Hong Kong’s free press and social media give the protesters exposure that may help prevent China from cracking down in the same way it has on restive minorities and dissidents living in the mainland, where public dissent is often harshly punished.

The protests have been dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution” by some because the crowds have used umbrellas to block the sun and to deflect police pepper spray.

“We are really basically just calling for the government to speak with us but they’ve been mute,” Peter Chin, a 22-year-old student at Hong Kong University. “We’ll keep staying here until they’re ready to consult with us.”

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