October 4, 2014 2:44 PM EDT

Updated Saturday, Oct. 4

A bold rally of tens of thousands of people mobilized in Hong Kong Saturday night, just hours after the region’s Beijing-backed leader Leung Chun-ying issued a cease-and-desist order to protesters occupying some of the territory’s busiest districts. They came to sing, to raise their glowing cellphones in solidarity and to flaunt the nonviolent underpinnings of their movement, which has joined designer-clad mall rats with spectacled students. “Protesting peacefully is the spirit of Hong Kong” went one refrain that resounded across Admiralty, the business district normally populated by bankers and shoppers that also includes government offices.

If Leung, whose resignation is one of the protesters’ aims, hoped to convince the demonstrators to leave the streets, he failed. Saturday’s assembly was likely the biggest yet in a student-supported movement to bring democratic reform to Hong Kong and safeguard the freedoms that differentiate the territory from the rest of China. Oxygen was sucked back into the movement precisely at the moment when the authorities deemed that the crowds had to disperse from major roads by Oct. 6, the beginning of the workweek.

Some people in Admiralty said Saturday they were inspired to come by the violence the protesters faced from tear-gas wielding police on Sept. 28 and mafia-linked thugs on Oct. 3. “It was different a few days ago,” said Sam Au, a 49-year-old construction project manager. “We were supporting the student movement. But now we’re supporting non-violence against protesters.” The roster of speakers made sure to highlight the peaceful nature of the movement, whose supporters have taken to raising their arms in a Ferguson-style surrender and chanting “calm down, calm down” to any potential troublemaker. Despite the crush of bodies in Admiralty, the protesters shuffled forward obediently. Volunteers offered fresh fruit, cooling plasters and charging stations for cellphones.

“Do we look like Red Guards?” asked Joshua Wong, the wisp of a 17-year-old whose student activism group is one of the rally’s organizers, in reference to the Chinese youth group whose chilling excesses helped Chairman Mao foment the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. The crowd in Admiralty, which stretched across a highway as far as the eye could see, responded with a defiant “No.”

Many of the faces in the crowd were young; one typed frantically into her phone trying to convince her mother that she was at a friend’s house. “The [local] government never listens to what we want,” said Hiu Wah, a 19-year-old childhood education student at the Institute of Vocational Education. “They only listen to Beijing.” But others were older—and not offended when some of the rally’s speakers bemoaned a divide between idealistic youth and an older generation warier of displeasing Hong Kong’s overlords in Beijing. “We are here to protect the young people,” said a retired language professor from the Chinese University of Hong Kong surnamed Kwan. “They are the ones who will have to deal with the future after 2047.” Under the joint agreement that set the conditions for the former British colony’s return to China in 1997, Hong Kong was promised significant autonomy for 50 years under a formula called “one country, two systems.”

The protesters have articulated two main goals they say need to be met before they disperse: Leung’s removal and the reversal of Beijing’s Aug. 31 decision to essentially pre-select two or three candidates for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive elections in 2017. Instead of voting for these screened individuals, the protesters want full autonomy to choose their leader. They are also worried that Hong Kong’s freedoms—independent courts, media and civil service, among others—are being eroded by Beijing.

But a steady stream of anti-protester invective in China’s state-controlled media, not to mention Leung’s Monday ultimatum, have raised questions of whether Beijing is in any sort of conciliatory mood. Certainly, under President Xi Jinping, China has pounded a patriotic drumbeat and detained hundreds of dissenters who dared question the wisdom of the Chinese Communist Party.

If that’s the case, middle ground between the protesters, who gave rapturous applause to speakers who promised to “fight to the end,” and the government, which has vowed to clear the streets by “all actions necessary,” will be difficult to locate. Further complicating things: there is no one leader of the protest coalition and there is more than one rally site, although Admiralty is by far the biggest. Control will be harder to maintain with mission creep. Early Sunday morning, scuffles broke out in Mongkok, one of the other protest sites, injuring a police officer.

Perhaps the realization that a conciliatory window is narrowing was what gave Saturday’s rally, for all its peaceful hymns and bright yellow stickers, a nervous edge. As some of the protesters exited the site just before midnight, rumors flew. Was a crackdown imminent on the thousands that were still camped out on the pavement—some snuggled in tents, others sprawled straight on the asphalt?

“I am really worried about myself and everyone in here,” said Don Lung, who works in education. “But I believe that many people in Hong Kong will fight for us.” The battle lines are drawn, but will the fight come?

with reporting by Elizabeth Barber and Rishi Iyengar/Hong Kong


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