HONG KONG - China's refusal to allow free elections in Hong Kong risks an open-ended confrontation that will test how far Beijing will go to stop the city's pro-democracy fever from infecting the mainland. While a heavy-handed response threatens the city's reputation as a stable, world-class business hub, Beijing fears that unchecked protests could spill across the border and ignite discontent with one-party Communist rule.
"China is watching this very nervously," said Michael Kugelman, an Asia expert with the DC-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, "We are getting close to an inflection point."
The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong gained new momentum Sunday night as a unexpectedly tough police crackdown galvanized support for the protests and brought more people onto the streets.
Many protesters have expressed fears that China is tightening its grip on the city of seven million and that cherished freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland are under threat.
Despite US-led calls for restraint after wild scenes when police fired volleys of tear gas at the crowds, China said it "fully" backs Hong Kong authorities in their handling of the demonstrations.
"We oppose all illegal acts in Hong Kong," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Tuesday.
The protestors have vowed to remain on the street until Beijing revokes its decision to restrict who can stand in the city's next leadership election, and introduce full universal suffrage.
Since the weekend the gatherings have been large but peaceful, although the protesters remain wary as few expect Beijing to offer any concessions, raising questions about the next steps for the movement - and for China's rulers.
The Communist Party is concerned that allowing the protests to continue could see a contagion on the mainland, which has witnessed a clampdown on dissent under the leadership of Xi Jinping.
Since he came to power, the party has arrested scores of activists, journalists, academics, lawyers and others it sees as a threat to its rule, in what rights groups say is the harshest such crackdown in decades.
Beijing authorities on Monday directed all websites to "immediately" remove any information related to the Hong Kong protests, according to the US-based website China Digital Times which monitors Chinese propaganda.
The photo-sharing service Instagram was suspended, searches for terms such as "Occupy Central" and "Hong Kong students" were blocked from the Twitter-like Weibo and government censors swiftly erased content critical of Beijing from Chinese social media.
"China certainly still has the capacity, ability and desire to control the type of information that gets out there," said Kugelman.