HONG KONG – Raising the stakes in their standoff with the authorities, student leaders of Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests warned they will step up their actions if the territory's top official doesn't resign by Thursday, possibly occupying several important government buildings.
Storming government buildings would risk inviting another confrontation with police. It also would put pressure on the Chinese government, which so far has said little beyond declaring the protests illegal and backing Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's attempts to end them.
Chinese state media indicated the government may be losing patience with the protests. An editorial solemnly read Wednesday on China's main TV broadcaster CCTV said all Hong Kong residents should support authorities to "deploy police enforcement decisively" and "restore the social order in Hong Kong as soon as possible."
Students are leading the protests for wider electoral reforms, which pose the stiffest challenge to Beijing's authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.
Lester Shum, vice secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said the students would welcome an opportunity to speak to a Chinese central government official.
"However, we ask them to come to the square and speak to the masses," Shum told reporters. "This is a movement of Hong Kongers and not led by any specific group."
Shum demanded that Leung resign by the end of Thursday. He said there was "no room for dialogue" with Leung because he had ordered police to fire tear gas at protesters over the weekend.
"Leung Chun-ying must step down. If he doesn't resign by tomorrow we will step up our actions, such as by occupying several important government buildings," he said, adding that demonstrators would not interfere with "essential" government agencies, such as hospitals and social welfare offices.
Chan Kin-man, another protest leader, said the demonstrations would continue as long as the Hong Kong government fails to give a satisfactory response to their demands.
"I hope people will understand why the action keeps on escalating. It's because the government is getting more and more closed without listening to Hong Kong people," he said in an interview on the street. "If the government can give us a proper response in due course I think we can end the occupation immediately."
The protesters oppose Beijing's decision in August that all candidates in an inaugural 2017 election for the territory's top post must be approved by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing local elites. They say China is reneging on a promise that the chief executive would be chosen through "universal suffrage."
Upping the pressure on leaders in Beijing, sympathy protests sprang up in Macau, a former Portuguese colony that China took over in 1999, and in the independently ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own.
In Hong Kong, protesters heckled Leung as he attended a flag-raising ceremony early Wednesday marking China's National Day, the day Communist China was founded in 1949. Hundreds yelled at him to step down, then fell silent and turned their backs when the ceremony began.
In a speech, Leung did not mention the protesters, but told voters it would be better to agree to Beijing's plan for vetting candidates and hold an election than to keep the current system in which an Election Commission chooses the chief executive.
As the protests have worn on, Beijing's tone has hardened.
President Xi Jinping, who has acted harshly against any perceived threats to the Communist Party's hold on power, vowed in a National Day speech to "steadfastly safeguard" Hong Kong's prosperity and stability.
An editorial in the Communist Party-run People's Daily warned of "unimaginable consequences" if the protests persist.
"They have already severely disrupted the normal life of the Hong Kong public, and even endangered the property and personal safety of the Hong Kong public," it said.
Protest numbers swelled on Wednesday, a national holiday, to tens of thousands, including many families with children, couples, students, retirees and foreigners who live in the city of 7 million. Many thronged a six-lane highway in front of the government headquarters in the Admiralty area, while others gathered in the downtown areas of Causeway Bay and Mong Kok.
"I came out today to support the movement. No student leaders or occupy leaders urged me to come out. I came out on my own," said Pierre Wong, a 36-year-old IT technician. "I hope there will be democratic reform, instead of using the current framework."