HONG KONG – Tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets of Hong Kong and crowds of students blocked the entrances to government headquarters Thursday as midnight approached — the deadline protest leaders had set for the resignation of the city's chief executive.
Tensions could escalate early Friday if the demand goes unmet, as expected. But many experts and politically involved people in Hong Kong say all players in the confrontation — the pro-democracy protesters, the Hong Kong government and the Communist Party leadership in Beijing — have opportunities to defuse the situation and allow Hong Kong to get back to normal.
Here are some of their options:
OCCUPY, AS PROMISED: The student leaders may step up their action by occupying government buildings, which could escalate confrontation since the police warned Thursday that such moves may bring on "serious consequences." It could also undermine public sympathy for their cause.
STAY THE COURSE: The students could drop the plan to charge into government buildings but continue to occupy main roads around Hong Kong. So far the police, who fueled an initial clash last weekend by using tear gas and pepper spray, seem prepared to let this scenario play out. They have backed down and now have minimal presence at most protest sites.
COMPROMISE: Students are debating among themselves whether to meet with authorities without setting preconditions such as the resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Some favor backing down if the government agrees to talks with the pro-democracy movement. Others are adamant in demanding Leung step down.
HONG KONG AUTHORITIES:
ANOTHER CRACKDOWN: The police drastically scaled down their handling of the protests after their use of tear gas and pepper spray against the protesters on Sunday rallied sympathy for the demonstrators and drew more people into the streets. They could step up their efforts to clear the streets, but it would be a huge task with all the barricades blocking major roads.
GIVE IN: Leung could quit, under pretext of ill health, as others have done in the past. So far the Beijing-backed chief executive has ruled out any changes in government personnel, suggesting he is rejecting calls for his resignation.
SEEK SUPPORT, OR A DEAL: The pro-Beijing political leadership is lobbying business people whose livelihoods are being harmed by the protests. Others are urging both sides to agree to talks without preconditions.
WAIT IT OUT: So far, the Chinese leadership in Beijing appears to be waiting for the protesters to lose momentum and leave the streets on their own. The pressure to clear out will grow as the Chinese National Day holidays wrap up. Stores and offices reopen Friday.
MAKE CONCESSIONS: Beijing could remove Leung, as the protesters have demanded, and replace him with a deputy, Carrie Lam, who is more popular. It could also offer concessions about how it will choose the 1,200-member committee that's set to pick the city's chief executive candidates in 2017. Chinese leaders, however, have over the past year resisted compromising while responding to democracy demands in Hong Kong.
SEND TROOPS: Chinese leaders could send in mainland police or military to clear the streets, but that would risk bloodshed and could severely destabilize not only Hong Kong but the mainland. That option grows even more complicated as the ranks of protesters expand and spread around the city.
AP writers Elaine Kurtenbach, Kelvin Chan, Joanna Chiu and Wendy Tang in Hong Kong and Jack Chang in Beijing contributed to this report.