Police in blue shirts wearing dark helmets with visors fired volleys of tear gas, charged with batons, and squirted pepper spray at protesters on Sunday, a move that may have unintentionally galvanised support for students.
"I was angry with what I saw in the news yesterday. I had no intention of demonstrating earlier on," said 21-year-old Alexander Chan, a science undergraduate at Hong Kong University. "The police fired tear gas on the students who were protesting peacefully. It was too much, so I came out."
China is always afraid of students because of what happened in 1989 in Tiananmen. Students have better knowledge and you cannot control them.
Another student, Arthur Chan, 21, told Al Jazeera he too took to the streets in support, despite fears of police violence. "It would be shameful if we sat at home and didn't do anything after what we saw in the news last night. Even though I am a bit afraid, I feel I must come out here."
Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997 under a formula known as "one country, two systems", which guaranteed a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China. But China has limited 2017 elections of Hong Kong's leader to a handful of candidates loyal to Beijing.
In August, China rejected demands for people to freely choose the city's next leader. Since then, protests have been growing with students leading the charge outside government offices and elsewhere last week. Another group has threatened to shut down the central business district in a mass demonstration.
On Monday, demonstrators brought traffic to a standstill on major roads in the city in a sea of mostly young people, some as young as 13, many wearing black T-shirts.
"There are no leaders here, unlike the previous demonstrations. Many came out here spontaneously, as they were angry with what they saw happened," Arthur Chan said amid a large crowd in the Admiralty area.
Despite the large numbers, the students were well-organised. True to Hong Kong's efficient nature, they even sorted through rubbish to separate trash from items that could be recycled, and packed neat rows of garbage bags.
It remains to be seen what happens next. One China scholar suggested the street protests could last a while.
|Demonstrators sported goggles and other equipment after police fired pepper-spray and tear gas [Amy Chew]
"The people felt very indignant with the police action," Willy Wo-lap Lam, a China analyst from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera. "The use of tear gas could galvanise more people to return. It becomes a protracted warfare."
As night fell, many of the protesters prepared to sleep on the streets, beneath overhead bridges, umbrellas and other shelters.
The student-led uprising has led some to compare it to 1989's Tiananmen Square demonstration in Beijing, when students there came out in the tens-of-thousands to demand greater freedom. That protest ended in mass bloodshed when China sent in tanks and troops to clear the square, killing hundreds, possibly thousands.
"China is always afraid of students because of what happened in 1989 in Tiananmen. Students have better knowledge and you cannot control them. We have very little lose, so we are not afraid to come out," said Eric Cheung, 23.
According to Lam, many of the activists have little hope Beijing will relent and give in to their demands. "But they are doing this just to demonstrate, they want to defend Hong Kong's core values including rule of law, freedom of speech, neutrality of civil service, et cetera."
Lam described China's president as a tough leader and radical nationalist who is unlikely to bend.
"There is no possibility of President Xi Jinping changing his mind or agreeing to a compromise," said Lam.
|Young Hong Kong protesters take a break [Amy Chew]
The Federation of Students' secretary-general Alex Chow Yong-kang said the main aim of the students' action was to raise awareness among Hong Kong people to stand up for freedom.
"The major impact is to awaken more Hong Kong people and draw more Hong Kong people out on the streets. That would be the starting point of putting pressure on the government," said Chow.
The journey of Hong Kong's young people from schools and university out onto the streets is rooted in a sense of pessimism for the future, as owning a home is beyond the reach of many, and salaries fail to catch up with the city's runaway inflation.
"It's totally changed. The real estate has gone through the roof. It's very difficult, we have much less social mobility," said Lam.
They see the writing on the wall. That means unless the system is changed, they won't have that much of a future in Hong Kong.
"Even if you are the top of your class in university, it is very difficult for a young professional to establish his business within 10-20 years. We don't have the level playing field anymore. The city has changed," he added.
The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions joined the young people on the streets on Monday, as it sees the freedom to choose the former British territory's leader as the only way to improve the plight of workers.
"Life is very hard for the Hong Kong worker. It is common for them to work for 12 hours a day with no overtime," said Mung Siu Tat from the union. "The salaries have not caught up with inflation. They struggle to pay their rent, make ends meet."
Hong Kong people are also resentful of the wave of immigration of mainland Chinese into the territory since 1997, to an estimated one million out of a population of seven million, according to Lam.
All these factors have come to stoke resentment against the Beijing government.
"That is why the level of participation by college students was unexpectedly high, because this is their future," Lam said. "They are the stakeholders. They see the writing on the wall. That means unless the system is changed, they won't have that much of a future in Hong Kong."