HONG KONG — Pro-democracy protesters kept behind police barricades heckled Hong Kong’s under-fire leader on Wednesday when he attended a flag-raising ceremony on China’s National Day.
The protesters, upset that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has refused to meet them, have threatened to expand their demonstrations unless he resigns and the Chinese leadership agrees to broader electoral reforms.
The ceremony was held to mark the anniversary of the founding of communist China in 1949, and after the hundreds of protesters yelled at Leung to step down, they then fell silent and turned their backs when the ceremony began.
Helicopters flew past carrying the Hong Kong and Chinese flags, with the latter noticeably bigger.
In a speech, Leung made no direct mention of the protesters, who have blocked streets for days across the semiautonomous territory to press demands for genuine democratic reforms for Hong Kong’s first direct elections in 2017 to choose the city’s top leader. The protests have posed the stiffest challenge to Beijing’s authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.
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.”
As he spoke later to a group of dignitaries, pro-democracy lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung shouted for him to step down before he was bundled away by security. Local councilor Paul Zimmerman held up a yellow umbrella. The umbrella has become a symbol of the nonviolent civil disobedience movement because it has been used by protesters to deflect police pepper spray.
“I’m here today with the yellow umbrella because it stands against the shooting of tear gas at the children of Hong Kong. I think we have destroyed the values of Hong Kong earlier this weekend by shooting tear gas at children,” Zimmerman said.
China took control of Hong Kong under an arrangement that guaranteed its 7 million people semi-autonomy, Western-style civil liberties and eventual democratic freedoms that are denied to Chinese living on the communist-ruled mainland.
The territory’s first direct elections are set for 2017, but the recent move by the Chinese government saying that a special committee will screen the candidates is seen as reneging on a promise that the chief executive will be chosen through “universal suffrage.”
Changing that is one of the major demands of the protesters.
The growing protests have attracted worldwide attention, with British Prime Minister David Cameron saying he 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.
“It is not for us to involve ourselves in every dot and comma of what the Chinese set out,” Cameron said in England. But he added: “I think it is a critical question. Real universal suffrage doesn’t just mean the act of voting; it means a proper choice.”
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.
Despite the hardening rhetoric from both sides, Tuesday night passed with a festive mood and few police were evident, but the crowds and road blockages are expected to grow sharply as Wednesday and Thursday are public holidays.
“Frankly, if I was a government official, I would not have a clue how to solve this,” said Chit Lau, a 35-year-old pilot, adding he thought the stalemate would continue until Leung or some other top official resigned, or the army clashed with the people.
It was not clear what the demonstrators plan to do next. There were no immediate official statements from the protesters. University students are already boycotting classes, and other options include widening the protests, pushing for a labor strike and occupying a government building.
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. Over the weekend, police fired tear gas and pepper spray in an attempt to disperse the protesters, but the demonstrations only spread.
Associated Press writers Elaine Kurtenbach, Louise Watt and Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Aritz Parra in Beijing contributed to this report.