Hong Kong protests: What happens next?

Hong Kong protests: What happens next?
Pro-democracy demonstrators display placards as they gather near a ceremony marking China's 65th National Day in Hong Kong on October 1, 2014.

HONG KONG - Hong Kong has been plunged into the worst political crisis since its 1997 handover as pro-democracy activists take over the streets following China's refusal to grant citizens full universal suffrage.

On one side is a coalition of pro-democracy groups who have brought paralysis to parts of the city, calling on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to resign and for Beijing to rescind its decision that candidates to succeed him in 2017 elections be vetted by a committee of loyalists.

On the other side is Leung's local government, backed by Beijing, who insist that the decision will stand.

They argue that the electoral reform package on the table - meaning that Hong Kong's leader will for the first time be elected by popular vote in 2017 - is already an improvement on the current system, under which the chief executive is appointed by a Beijing-controlled committee.

But protesters call that proposal "fake democracy" because only two to three candidates who receive backing from a loyalist nomination committee will be allowed to stand for election in the first place, effectively barring anyone critical of Beijing.

With neither side willing to budge, what are the possible scenarios over the coming days?

Protest movement builds

For the last three nights demonstrators have managed to draw crowds of tens of thousands onto Hong Kong's streets at key intersections. Many streamed into the city's Bauhinia Square Wednesday morning to protest at China's National Day ceremony, booing as helicopters carrying the a large Chinese flag and smaller Hong Kong flag flew overhead.

With Wednesday and Thursday being public holidays, numbers could continue to swell, especially if the police stick to the low profile they have kept ever since coming under heavy criticism for tear-gassing crowds on Sunday night.

A continued blockade of vital carriageways and ever-growing crowds would place intense pressure on the government to respond, either by meeting some of the protesters' demands or by cracking down on them.

Analysts say Leung's resignation, while unlikely, could take some of the momentum away from the protesters.

Protest movement falters

Although the numbers for the last few nights have been impressive, pro-democracy groups are under pressure to keep the crowds large.

A dwindling of supporter numbers on the streets could lead to a loss of momentum and embolden the city authorities to send police in to clear those who remain.

The smaller protest sites are the most vulnerable to clearances. Each morning only a handful of protesters have been seen in the Mong Kok and Causeway Bay districts as many leave to shower and rest.

Demonstrators also have to take note of wider public opinion within a city proud of its hard-won reputation for being a good place to do business.

Although sporadic arguments have taken place between commuters and shop owners angry at the disruption caused, there has been little public backlash so far.

That could change if the inconvenience caused by the protests extends into further days or weeks.

And while the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful and mild mannered, protest leaders know radicals in their midst could derail that.

"They feel that the fringe elements may try and influence the younger elements to take the lead in acts of civil disobedience," risk consultancy Intelligent Security Solutions wrote in a recent briefing note.

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