Hong Kong's Leader Just Called Their Bluff

The mostly young protesters in Hong Kong have demanded that the city’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, step down by the end of Thursday, threatening to occupy government buildings if he fails to do so.

But right before a 12 p.m EDT deadline passed, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told a press conference that he won’t resign and warned protesters not to try and occupy government buildings.

“Any dialogue on political reform has to be based on the Basic Law and framework by the National People’s Congress, ” he said, adding that the protests could not continue indefinitely.

Leung added that Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor would meet with protesters to discuss a letter on on the “constitutional development” of Hong Kong that was sent by student leaders.

There have been signs of preparations being made to contront any problems with protesters:

Both sides hunkered down for what could be a prolonged standoff, although the number of protesters blocking the streets in the financial and administrative districts for the past six days tapered off on Thursday.

The protesters have also called on China to introduce full democracy so the city can freely choose its own leader.

RTR48IGTREUTERS/Carlos BarriaJoshua Wong, leader of the student movement, delivers a speech as protesters block the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong, on Thursday.

China’s ambassador to Germany, Shi Mingde, told Reuters that the city’s reputation as a financial hub was not under threat for now. “But if shares fall, if the unrest continues, then the social order and (Hong Kong’s) role as a financial center will be in danger,” he said in an interview in Berlin.

“This is neither in Hong Kong’s nor China’s interest.”

The city’s benchmark index, closed on Thursday for a holiday, plunged 7.3 per cent in September.

Spooked by the protests, which turned violent at the weekend when tens of thousands took to the streets, some banks and other financial firms have begun moving staff to backup premises on the outskirts of the city.

Turmoil in Hong Kong has begun to affect the economy.

Hong kongREUTERS/Carlos BarriaA man walks near the central financial district in Hong Kong on Tuesday.

Hong Kong radio RTHK quoted Joseph Tung, executive director of the city’s Travel Industry Council, as saying China’s tourism authorities had suspended approval of tourist groups from the mainland to Hong Kong, citing safety.

A government source with ties to Leung said the pro-Beijing leader was prepared to play a long-game, intervening only if there were looting or violence.

“Unless there’s some chaotic situation, we won’t send in riot police … We hope this doesn’t happen,” the source said. “We have to deal with it peacefully, even if it lasts weeks or months.” Leung could not be reached for comment.

In a separate briefing, Steve Hui, senior superintendent of the Hong Kong police force, urged protesters not to block or charge at government buildings, saying police would take action in accordance with the law if they did.

The “Occupy Central” movement presents one of the biggest political challenges for Beijing since it violently crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Riot police used tear gas, pepper spray and baton charges last weekend to quell unrest, the worst in Hong Kong since China resumed its rule of the former British colony in 1997.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying REUTERS/Carlos BarriaA protester next to a defaced cutout of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying while blocking a street outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Tuesday.

The protests have calmed considerably since then, although an air of tension remains and the demonstrations appear far from over. A crowd of about 100 protesters on Thursday blocked the main road leading to Leung’s office in the Central business district, some chanting, “Leung Chun-ying, Step Down!”

A pro-Beijing group told a news conference in Hong Kong their supporters would take to the streets to show support for Leung’s administration, raising the prospect of clashes between the two sides.

The crowded suburbs of Kowloon and the neighbouring New Territories are home to a vast organised network of pro-Beijing groups, some of which boast close ties to mainland companies and officials and have grown active in street counter-protests in recent months.

China has dismissed the pro-democracy protests as illegal, but in a worrying sign for the Communist Party leadership in Beijing, the demonstrations have spread to neighbouring Macau and Taiwan.

China now faces a dilemma.

Cracking down too hard could shake confidence in market-driven Hong Kong, which has a separate legal system from the rest of China. Not reacting firmly enough, however, could embolden dissidents on the mainland.

Shi Mingde, the Chinese ambassador, said most mainlanders had little sympathy for the demonstrations in Hong Kong. “Therefore I don’t believe that this will have consequences for the mainland.”

A front-page editorial in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, lauded Leung’s leadership and the police response to the protests. “The central government fully trusts Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and is very satisfied with his work,” it said on Thursday.

International Concern

US President Barack Obama told visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who earlier met Secretary of State John Kerry, that Washington was watching the protests closely and urged a peaceful solution.

“The United States has consistently supported the open system that is essential to Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity, universal suffrage, and the aspiration of the Hong Kong people,” the White House said in a statement about the meeting, also attended by national security adviser Susan Rice.

Hong kong kerry chinaREUTERS/Jonathan ErnstUS Secretary of State John Kerry reaches out to shake hands with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi after remarks to reporters ahead of their meeting at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday.

Universal suffrage is an eventual goal under the “one country, two systems” formula by which China rules Hong Kong. Under that formula, China accords Hong Kong some autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China.

However, protesters calling for free elections reacted angrily when Beijing decreed on Aug. 31 that it would vet candidates wishing to run in Hong Kong’s 2017 election.

Wang said before an earlier meeting with Kerry that countries should not meddle in China’s internal affairs.

“The Chinese government has very formally and clearly stated its position. Hong Kong affairs are China’s internal affairs. All countries should respect China’s sovereignty,” Wang said.

Protesters across the city have dug in, setting up supply stations with water bottles, fruit, raincoats, towels, goggles, face masks, tents, and umbrellas. Even so, some in the crowds wondered how long the status quo could last.

The Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the protest organisers, urged people to surround more government buildings from Friday unless the authorities accepted their demands.

But Leung has said Beijing would not back down and that Hong Kong police would be able to maintain security without help from People’s Liberation Army troops from the mainland.

(Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Charlie Zhu, Yimou Lee, James Pomfret, Irene Jay Liu, Farah Master, Diana Chan, Twinnie Siu, Kinling Lo, Clare Baldwin, Diana Chan and Jason Subler in HONG KONG, Lesley Wroughton, Arshad Mohammed, Jeff Mason and Steve Holland in WASHINGTON, Jonathan Allen in NEW YORK, and Noah Barkin and Andreas Rinke in BERLIN; Writing by Paul Tait, Jason Subler, and Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Jeremy Laurence)

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