Spurred by the decision Sunday to use tear gas and pepper spray on pro-democracy protesters, tens of thousands of people joined sit-ins across Hong Kong on Monday in an outpouring of discontent that’s likely to disrupt this former British colony for days, if not longer, and force a confrontation with Beijing over how it will be ruled.
There was no official estimate of how many people were on the street, but some protest groups estimated the crowd had reached 200,000 and possibly more. Whatever the size, the protests – and the international attention they received – rattled the world’s financial markets. Hong Kong’s stock market, the world’s seventh largest, dropped 2 percent Monday, and some analysts said that contributed to a drop in the U.S. stock market.
Many of the tens of thousands of people on the street Monday night wore goggles, masks and plastic wrap to guard against more gassing and pepper spraying. Protesters cordoned off or blocked wide boulevards usually filled with buses, taxis and other cars, turning vast thoroughfares into crowded pedestrian malls.
Many of the protesters demanded that the city’s chief executive – an appointee of the government in Beijing – resign, a sign of how, in just 24 hours, what started as a spirited but not widespread protest had turned into a mass movement pressing for change that China’s Communist Party rulers may find impossible to allow. Many protesters told a McClatchy reporter Monday that they’ll go home only when change comes at the top.
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“C.Y. must go,” said one 24-year-old protester, Simon Wong, referring to Hong Kong’s chief executive, C.Y. Leung, also known as Leung Chun-ying. “When you use tear gas against your own people, that is unacceptable. He has to go.”
Leung is a product of Hong Kong’s system of selecting a chief executive, a process put in place in 1997, when Great Britain surrendered what had been a British colony to Beijing. While the agreement under which Britain turned over Hong Kong to China mandated that a capitalist system remain in place for 50 years, Beijing controlled the selection of the leader.
Pro-democracy groups want to change that through open elections in 2017. While China’s ruling Communist Party has agreed to let elections proceed, it wants a Beijing-friendly nominating committee to select the nominees for chief executive, a decision that protesters find unacceptable.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest weighed in on the side of the protesters, saying “the legitimacy of the chief executive would be enhanced” by open elections. For its part, China said it was none of the United States’ business.
To push for what they call “real democracy,” students converged on Hong Kong’s government complex Friday, getting ahead of another planned protest by a group of older democracy advocates, called Occupy Central. Police pushed back the young crowd, first with pepper spray and then tear gas on Sunday. Televised images of the police action prompted sympathizers to join their ranks and expand the protests Monday.
On Monday, China, apparently wanting to prevent its citizens from seeing images of the Hong Kong protests, blocked the photo-sharing service Instagram for the first time. Earlier, China’s state-run Global Times newspaper declared that “the radical activists are doomed” in an editorial about the Hong Kong demonstrators. It also published an article on its website, later removed, advocating that China’s paramilitary force join the Hong Kong police in suppressing the protests.
Despite such saber rattling, Hong Kong police showed far more restraint Monday, some visibly weary from the day before. Hong Kong authorities said Monday that riot police would withdraw, and, compared with the previous day, the mood in the street was relaxed and even playful.
A bank employee named Sam walked east along traffic-free Connaught Road – usually one of Hong Kong’s busiest thoroughfares – and marveled at all the protesters sprawled on the pavement near the city’s government complex. Some of the young demonstrators were napping, and some were taking selfies with their mobile phones.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Sam, who asked that his last name not be used because Hong Kong banks oppose the protests. “After I get off work, I will put on a T-shirt and join them.”
Protesters woke up Monday to learn their cause had gone viral, with some on Twitter calling them the “umbrella revolution,” for the use of umbrellas to deflect pepper spray. Protesters were also filmed Sunday raising their hands and yelling, “Don’t shoot,” evoking the circumstances that led to recent protests in Ferguson, Mo.
A few miles away from the government complex, in Causeway Bay, hundreds of other protesters were occupying a major shopping street next to a large department store. They seemed determined to show they could carry out an orderly, efficient sit-in. Crews were assigned to sort and recycle trash, deliver food and hand out yellow ribbons to passers-by.
Brian Ho, 35, said he’d taken the day off from work Monday to serve as a volunteer on the protest line after seeing the tear gassing and pepper spraying on television. “When I saw that, I got really angry and felt I needed to come out and support the students,” said Ho.
Hong Kong is known as the world’s most densely populated city, covering 426 square miles and with a population of 7 million, the majority of whom live on either Hong Kong island or Kowloon, on the other side of Victoria Harbor.
Until Sunday, the government center on Hong Kong island was the focus of the protests. But they’ve since spread to other areas, including the working class area of Mong Kok on Kowloon, where thousands more people could be seen crowding the streets Monday close to midnight.
Some protesters shuttled from one protest site to another via subway. It was easy to tell them from other passengers by the yellow ribbons they wore.
Mabel Au, the director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said police had used excessive force Sunday and were now seeing a protest far larger than if they’d let students exercise their right to assemble.
“It’s an ironic thing: The police said the protesters were disturbing public order, but it was their actions that were the real disturbance,” said Au. “The public was sympathetic, and that has encouraged more people to come out.”
Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.