HONG KONG (CNN) — Hong Kong police on Thursday warned protesters not to surround government buildings, saying they will take “impartial and decisive enforcement” if public security is threatened.
Police spokesman Steve Hui said any violent attempt to occupy or obstruct government buildings would have “serious consequences,” and he called on protesters to disperse. The pro-democracy mass demonstrations have largely been peaceful since police fired tear gas and pepper spray on protesters Sunday.
Hui didn’t respond to a question on whether police would use tear gas again.
Student leaders have vowed to move inside government buildings if Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, who is often viewed by many protesters as a puppet of China, did not resign by midnight Thursday local time.
At a news conference shortly before the deadline, Leung said he would not step down.
“I will not resign because I need to continue to finish working on universal suffrage so that Hong Kong’s 5 million voters can go to the polling booth and elect the chief executive,” he told reporters.
Leung said Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, who’s second in command, will meet with representatives of the Hong Kong Federation of Students to discuss “constitutional development matters.”
As that deadline neared, hundreds of students had moved from the main protest site to the gates of the chief executive’s office to express their dissatisfaction with him and the central government in Beijing.
Joshua Wong, 17, the leader of the Scholarism movement, whose student demonstrations last week sparked the large-scale protests that have brought key areas of the city’s commercial and financial centers to a standstill, urged the crowd to stay but to remain calm and not block the main road.
The police presence near the office was heavier, with many of the officers holding helmets, masks and gloves. For the first time, officers were seen carrying shields in front of the protesters.
Protesters who gathered nearby handed out goggles and masks to one another, preparing for what could be reignited tensions.
“If tomorrow we have to occupy different government buildings, we have to guard every key passageway, surround the government headquarters,” said Alex Chow of the Hong Kong Federation of Students.
“This is to allow all our participating friends to go to the chief executive office building to support each other. Let’s all stay strong, stand firm, keep fighting to the end.”
A government statement said the gathering protesters were paralyzing traffic in the area and warned them not to charge against government buildings or police cordons.
If they refuse to comply with officers’ warnings, the “police will take resolute enforcement actions,” it said.
A CNN journalist saw containers being brought into the government offices Thursday evening labeled “round, 38 mm rubber baton,” or rubber bullets.
Hong Kong police would not confirm the contents of the containers. It’s not clear when, if or how rubber bullets or tear gas would be used, if they are on hand.
Authorities may be getting impatient
The pro-democracy activists still occupy crucial parts of the Asian financial hub. But as the Hong Kong government prepares to reopen Friday after two public holidays, patience may be wearing thin as protests have extended into a fifth day.
The government earlier released a statement saying the protests have “increasingly serious impacts on people’s livelihood, Hong Kong’s economy and even government operations.”
All schools in the Central and Western districts will remain closed Friday, Principal Assistant Secretary for Education Sophia Wong said.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students put in a formal request Thursday evening to meet with Lam, the Hong Kong chief secretary, group spokeswoman Yvonne Leung said. So far, the students have not received a response.
Student leaders said police were gathering supplies, including tear gas and pepper spray, to clear the protest, and they urged more supporters to come out.
“The police are sending gear to the (chief executive’s) office,” said Chow. “Please go over there to offer support. We are fighting for universal suffrage and the right to nominate our leaders.”
Other protest leaders urged unity among a group that is rapidly becoming fatigued after several nights on the streets.
“The volunteers here are working so hard to try and keep everyone united,” said Benny Tai, co-founder of the Occupy Central movement. “I really hope that we can continue to work together to continue to stand firm, to continue fighting so we can have true democracy.”
Joshua Wong, the Scholarism movement leader, echoed the sentiment.
“Because we the people created this occupy movement, shouldn’t we all stand together and fight to the end?” he asked.
A high-ranking Chinese official has denounced the protests as “illegal acts” and reiterated China’s view that what happens in the special administrative region is purely a domestic matter.
“Hong Kong affairs are China’s internal affairs,” said Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister. “All countries should respect China’s sovereignty, and this is also a basic principle governing international relations.”
Wang is the highest-level official to speak critically about the Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrations. His statement was a warning for other nations to back off criticism about how China handles Hong Kong. Wang made the comments while standing next to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has expressed support for universal suffrage.
The People’s Daily, which is China’s official mouthpiece for the Communist Party, issued an editorial Wednesday stating that “Occupy Central harms Hong Kong and its people. If it’s allowed to continue, the consequences would be unimaginable.” It went on to cite economic, transportation and safety concerns.
Lee Cheuk Yan, Hong Kong Labour Party chairman, said he hoped the Hong Kong government would “have some restraint” in tackling the situation and said he was very worried that leaders in Beijing might take a hard line to prevent any kind of ripple effect in mainland China.
“I think the most positive way to resolve the problem is for C.Y. Leung to step down and start the whole political reform process,” he told CNN.
“We hope the whole situation will go on the bright side with real political reform and not on the negative side of brutal suppression.”
Can the protests last?
On Thursday, crowds at the main protest site appeared noticeably thinner. Some said the turnout could be smaller because it’s a traditional holiday when families visit their ancestors’ graves.
Fewer people were camped out and sitting on the roads than earlier this week. More people were milling about and wandering the streets.
“It’s so quiet,” Brian Lam, 21, a student who has participated in the protests for the past five days, said as he leaned against a highway barrier. “There are so few people,” he said, in comparison to the two previous days. He said he worried that the reduced crowd could make it easier for police to move in.
The protests have snarled traffic in Hong Kong’s main finance and commerce districts. It remains unclear how long the protests can maintain support and continue to draw the numbers that have so far clogged main arteries.
“If they (students) drag this on for a really long time, they’re going to start losing some of their support,” said David Zweig, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, as he stood at the main protest site.
At the same time, there is “enormous pressure” for the students to gain something from the mass demonstrations.
That longer-term issue: universal suffrage
Tensions rose after a late August decision that gave Beijing control over the slate of Hong Kong chief executive candidates in 2017.
It will let the city’s 5 million eligible voters pick a winner, rather than a 1,200-member committee stacked with Beijing loyalists that has chosen past leaders.
But critics argue that the right to vote is pointless if the candidates are handpicked by Beijing.
They launched the large-scale civil disobedience, which was dubbed the Umbrella Revolution after umbrellas became symbols of the movement when they were used to shield against police tear gas and pepper spray Sunday.
The huge crowds demand true universal suffrage without restrictions on candidates.
Not a unanimous movement
To date, 91 people have been injured in the protests, according to a government media officer.
But for the most part, the protesters have drawn praise for their efficiency and cleanliness as pictures of students doing homework, cleaning graffiti and picking up trash have circulated in international media.
Despite the huge turnout on the streets, not everyone in Hong Kong is behind the protest movement.
Leung has backing from pro-Beijing groups like the Silent Majority for Hong Kong, which has had its own rallies. They argue that pro-democracy activists will “endanger Hong Kong” and create chaos.