Hong Kong police warned of serious consequences if pro-democracy protesters try to occupy government buildings, as they have threatened to do if the territory's leader didn't resign by Thursday.
Tensions mounted ahead of the deadline set by students for the city's Beijing-backed Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to step down — part of broader demonstrations pushing for electoral reforms for the Asian financial center.
Both the Chinese government and the student protesters seemed to be losing patience after the weeklong street protests, the biggest challenge to Beijing's authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.
In a reflection of growing concern in Beijing, China's ruling party mouthpiece warned in a commentary Thursday of "chaos" in Hong Kong, and expressed strong support for Leung in his face-off with the protesters, an amorphous movement led mostly by university students.
Late Thursday afternoon, hundreds of young protesters crowded in front of the gate to the territory's government headquarters, spilling around the sides of the huge building and across the street. Many donned face masks and goggles, some had gas masks and rain capes — all precautions in case police might use tear gas and pepper spray, as they did last weekend to try to disperse demonstrators.
"We can't just sit here forever because we can't achieve what we want. We hope to have a direction with actions soon, not just sit here aimlessly," said Maness Ko, a 21-year-old college student.
The protesters oppose Beijing's decision in August that candidates in Hong Kong's first direct election in 2017 for the territory's top post be approved by a mostly pro-Beijing committee. They accuse the central government of reneging on its promise that the chief executive would be chosen through "universal suffrage."
Hong Kong police spokesman Steve Hui told reporters that blocking or occupying government buildings would not be tolerated and would lead to "serious consequences."
The students remained watchful but calm, looking on as police brought in tubs of gear, including some labeled "rubber batons." Each change of police shift brought on a ruckus as students resisted but eventually gave way after being reassured they could reoccupy the pavement outside the government compound's gate.
"We are not asking C.Y. to come talk to us. We are demanding he resign," said May Tang, a 21-year-old student at Lingnan University, referring to Leung. "It's too late for his government to be accountable to the people so we want a new one."
The People's Daily said in its commentary Thursday that the "central government fully trusts Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and is very satisfied with his work." It added that it firmly supports the Hong Kong police — criticized for using tear gas and pepper spray on the protesters last weekend — "to handle illegal activities in accordance with the law."
"Handling affairs without following laws, Hong Kong society will be in chaos," it said, adding that the rule of law must be safeguarded to ensure "healthy development of democracy and politics in Hong Kong."
The comments appeared to signal Beijing's growing concern that the protests could spiral out of Leung's control. But the Communist Party is known to send mixed signals at times, and such public support for Leung could also mean that Beijing is holding him responsible for bringing order quickly and decisively.
Some protesters said they disagreed with the student leaders' threat to occupy government buildings.
"Getting into a confrontation with police doesn't seem peaceful to me," said Wilson Yip, a 22-year-old recent university graduate. "If they try to force themselves inside and confront police, I don't see what kind of point that would make. It may make fewer people support the protests."
In Washington on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and said the U.S. supports the "highest possible degree of autonomy" in Hong Kong. He said he hopes Hong Kong authorities exercise restraint and allow the protesters to express their views peacefully.
Wang said that the protests are "China's internal affairs" and that no country would allow "illegal acts" against public order.