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HONG KONG — Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong held one of the largest rallies of their campaign Saturday evening, a gesture of defiance following attacks on their encampments and a declaration by the territory’s leader that major roads they have occupied for the last week must be cleared by Monday morning.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered at the main protest site at Admiralty, outside the government headquarters, after the territory’s embattled leader, Leung Chun-ying, said that “all necessary actions” would be taken to ensure that government workers could go back to work next week. He did not specify what those actions would be, but police used tear gas in an attempt to break up protests a week ago, leading to a wave of larger demonstrations.
“We know that every time they assault us, we resist harder,” Alex Chow Yong Kang, the secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, told the crowd. “And we know we’re on the right path, otherwise the government wouldn’t have been so afraid of us.”
The mood of the rally reflected the turbulence of recent days. There were moments of elation at the protests’ unexpected staying power. Three singers performed a newly written anthem dedicated to the protesters and their symbol, “Raise the Umbrella Together,” as members of the crowd waved their cellphones in the air. But there was also concern about the government’s demands to bring the protests to a halt. Rumors of a crackdown, some suggesting as soon as Sunday morning, circulated among the protesters, many of whom were carrying goggles and surgical masks to guard against pepper spray.
In a speech Saturday afternoon Mr. Leung said the protests are “causing serious repercussion to people’s daily life and income.”
He demanded demonstrators remove their blockade of roads in Hong Kong Island’s Western, Central and Wan Chai districts by Monday, and let 3,000 government employees go to work at the main office complex, which has been besieged by protesters.
Mr. Leung warned that continued protests could “evolve into a state beyond control, and will have serious consequences to public safety and social order.”
The government has said for days that it wants demonstrators to call off their occupation of key roads and stop surrounding government offices. At the same time, officials have indicated that they plan to wait out the protests.
But the recent violence may have changed the government’s calculations as both sides accuse the other of the mayhem.
Fighting broke out Friday after protest camps came under attack by men who the police believe had gang ties. The Mong Kok district was the scene of more confrontation on Saturday, evidence that a week after the protests began the conflict has slipped beyond the grip of leaders on either side. The United States Consulate warned citizens on Saturday to avoid protest areas in Hong Kong “due to the potential risk of escalating violence.”
On Saturday morning, the Hong Kong police said 19 men, including eight linked to organized crime gangs, or triads, had been arrested over the violence in Mong Kok. The police also said at least 18 people had been injured in the violence, including six police officers. Protest opponents have also sexually harassed or groped some female demonstrators, protesters say.
The attacks on Friday led to the leading student group to withdraw from proposed talks with the government, which they blamed for not protecting them.
Protesters and pro-democracy politicians claimed the assaults, and what appeared to be a delayed police reaction, bore the hallmarks of acts by organized crime groups that were condoned by the authorities, or at least made worse by a lax official response.
“They vandalized and attacked peaceful occupiers,” Alan Leong Kah-kit, the leader of the Civic Party, one of the city’s pro-democracy parties, said of the attackers at a news conference Saturday. The democrats, he said, were asking to meet with local officials to “manifest our strongest condemnation, and want them to make sure that what happened would not repeat today or in the future.”
Hong Kong’s secretary for security, Lai Tung-kwok, adamantly denied that the police condoned the attacks.
“I am aware of people’s allegation that the government tolerated triad societies, or even work with them,” Mr. Lai said at a news conference. “These accusations are completely fabricated and unjustified. They are also very unreasonable and unfair to the dutiful, diligent police officers.”
Instead of leaving Mong Kok overnight, protesters, mostly students, repaired and expanded their encampment Saturday on Nathan Road, a major avenue usually crammed during the weekend with tourists and shoppers, many from mainland China. The protesters suspended tarpaulins and signs over the road and built large barriers to the south of their main tent.
Throughout the afternoon the barricades were again besieged by groups of middle-aged men, who screamed at the protesters to leave and ripped away their signs and makeshift traffic barriers. Quarrels continued to erupt throughout the evening, but student stewards rushed in to prevent impassioned debate from escalating into fights.
Max Lee, an environmental consultant who was among those trying to prevent fresh violence, said he understood the complaints of residents. But like other protesters, he said a greater cause was at stake.
“We’re fighting for a long-term goal,” he said, while wearing a gas mask refashioned into a Mickey Mouse mask. “That requires sacrifices.”
Peter Mok, 65, who was among a crowd denouncing the demonstrators, said the sit-ins were causing chaos. “They are going too far,” he said. “It’s been seven days now. How much have the Hong Kong people lost?”
The protests demanding a fully democratic vote for the city’s leader erupted last weekend, then expanded after the police’s use of tear gas and pepper spray spurred public sympathy for the demonstrators. The protesters occupied major roads with sit-in camps that remained mostly peaceful until Friday, when gangs of men assaulted two camps. Some local residents, weary of the disruption from the week-old occupation, cheered on the attacks. The protests have demanded that the city’s leader, or chief executive, be chosen through a freely democratic vote. But the Chinese government has insisted that Hong Kong accept far more restricted electoral changes, which would allow the city’s voters to choose only among two or three candidates who have the blessing of Beijing and its loyalists.
The Chinese Communist Party sees the protesters as a subversive threat to their control over the city, a former British colony that since its return to Beijing’s sovereignty in 1997 has preserved freedoms and legal protections not enjoyed by mainland Chinese citizens.
On Saturday, People’s Daily, the party’s main newspaper, suggested that the Occupy movement was part of an effort to subvert its power across China, and likened the movement to a “color revolution,” the party’s phrase for anti-Communist insurrections.
“As for the ideas of a very small minority of people to use Hong Kong to create a ‘color revolution’ in mainland China, that is even more of a daydream,” the paper said in a front-page commentary.