HONG KONG — The standoff between Hong Kong’s government and protesters who have taken control of vital avenues entered its third week on Sunday with no signs of a resolution, as the student leaders of the demonstration appealed to President Xi Jinping of China to accept their position, which was then flatly rejected by Hong Kong’s leader.
Huge swaths of some of the world’s most expensive real estate remained blocked by hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators on Sunday. In the past weeks, their numbers have swollen into the thousands each evening. Many parents have brought their children to witness a real-life civics lesson amid the surreal sight of a tent city expanding day by day on an eight-lane road in the heart of Asia’s most important financial center.
The two largest student groups that have spearheaded the sit-in protests appealed to Mr. Xi in an open letter to rescind an Aug. 31 decision by China’s Communist Party-controlled legislature, which set guidelines for an election plan that democracy advocates say ensures that only pro-Beijing candidates will appear on the ballot to choose the highest official in the territory, the chief executive. The students want nominees to be chosen by voters, much as signature drives in the United States can win candidates a spot on the ballot.
In the letter, dated Saturday, the students say Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, “manipulated” a report to the Chinese legislature on which it based its decision, omitting the viewpoints of hundreds of thousands of democracy advocates, and saying it ignored the “Hong Kong people’s genuine wishes.”
In a television interview on Sunday, Mr. Leung rejected their demands, saying that the possibility of a reversal of the Chinese legislature’s decision “is almost nil” and criticizing the student movement, calling it “out of control.” An editorial on Saturday published by the state-run China News Service called the students’ demands “arrogant and ignorant.”
The focus of the students’ ire in the letter was Mr. Leung, not the central government in Beijing, which agreed to let Hong Kong operate as a semiautonomous region under an agreement that paved the way for an end to British rule over the city in 1997.
The protesters want Mr. Leung to resign, a demand made more biting by a report last week in an Australian paper that found Mr. Leung had failed to disclose $6.4 million in payments from an Australian engineering company disbursed while he was in office. Mr. Leung says he did nothing wrong, did not need to disclose the payments, and, in the interview on Sunday, said he would not resign.
Meanwhile, the city he oversees is in the midst of the biggest political crisis it has had since its return to Chinese sovereignty.
In addition to the main protest site near the government headquarters in central Hong Kong, protesters continue to hold sections of shopping districts in the Causeway Bay area as well as across Victoria Harbor in the Mong Kok neighborhood. To protect their flank, the students still hold a section of the main road on Hong Kong Island. The blockade has snarled traffic and shut down much of the city’s tram system, a cheap mode of public transportation often used by retirees.
The extensive road closures have raised the ire of business groups and transportation workers. Pro-government groups — distinguished by the blue ribbons they wear in contrast with the yellow ribbons of the democracy advocates — are giving students and the police until the end of the day on Tuesday to clear the streets in Mong Kok and Causeway Bay, otherwise they will do it themselves, the Beijing-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao reported on Sunday.
Hong Kong’s chief executive is currently picked by a small group of electors — about 1,200, most of whom support Beijing — from four broad sectors of society, including groups representing bankers, insurance executives, fishermen and teachers, among others.
In 2017, the system was supposed to change to give all of Hong Kong’s eligible voters — some five million people — the ability to cast ballots. The protests started after Beijing insisted that the 2017 candidates would require at least 50 percent support from a nominating committee — a version of the current election committee — to be able to appear on the ballot. That would result in a rigged system in which pro-democracy candidates had no chance of appearing on the ballot, protest leaders say.
Yet even under the strict guidelines set by China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, some people are saying there is room to negotiate and a way to satisfy pro-democracy groups.
Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, the pro-Beijing head of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, said in an interview published on the Chinese-language website of The New York Times that his side was open to improving the way the nominating committee was structured. Although pro-democracy — in Hong Kong “pan-democratic” — lawmakers say this would only result in cosmetic changes, Mr. Tsang, in the interview published Friday, said he was willing to push further in the future.
“The NPC’s decision is definitely a big step forward, and definitely not a step backwards,” Mr. Tsang said of the National People’s Congress. “More importantly, taking this step forward means the door stays open.”
Mr. Tsang warned that rejecting the proposal of the National People’s Congress — it must be passed by Hong Kong’s legislature and the pan-democrats have the votes to block it — means the democrats get nothing.
“But if you reject it, do you think the central government will turn its head and a more satisfactory solution will emerge?” he asked. “No way.”