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More Hong Kong protesters pour into streets as police pull back

After a night of tense confrontations with pro-democracy protesters in which the streets of Hong Kong were filled with tear gas, police abruptly reversed course Monday and adopted a much more relaxed stance that allowed even bigger crowds to pour into several main roadways. Traffic ground to a halt and some schools, banks and other businesses were shuttered.

A carnival-like atmosphere prevailed as tens of thousands of demonstrators, most in their teens or 20s, filled the highway stretching more than a mile and a half from the city's central financial district to the shopping mecca of Causeway Bay. Across Victoria Harbor in the Mong Kok neighborhood, thousands more staged a sit-in in a major intersection, demanding free elections in 2017.

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As night fell Monday, volunteers passed out donated bananas, water, face masks and dim sum to protesters, many of whom wore yellow ribbons. A group of women stood in front of a subway station armed with rolls of kitchen plastic wrap, offering to swaddle the limbs of anyone who feared officers might return with tear gas. So many protesters wore protective goggles that it looked as if every young person in the city of 7 million had skipped out on industrial arts class and taken to the streets.

But aside from a contingent of almost bored-looking officers posted around government headquarters, police were hard to find Monday night — a remarkable shift from 24 hours earlier when officers in full riot gear confronted protesters and fired 87 canisters of tear gas, sparking outrage in the normally staid and well-mannered semiautonomous Chinese territory.

"It's much more relaxed tonight; last night we really thought something even more bad would happen," said Renee Tsang, 19, who was hanging out with her boyfriend and other members of the Civic Passion Party on a stretch of pavement near government headquarters. Just behind her, Wong Yeung-tat, a firebrand party leader, was screaming anti-Chinese-government epithets into a microphone, the mildest being "Drop dead, Communist Party!"

The demonstrations have burst forth in response to new rules imposed by mainland Chinese authorities that would limit voters' choices in Hong Kong's 2017 election for chief executive, the territory's top official.

But underlying Hong Kongers' unhappiness is what they see as an unwelcome influx of mainlanders and an unresponsive city government beholden to Beijing. Locals in the former British territory, which returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, complain about a range of issues, including high housing prices and a growing income gap.Gary Lam, 44, watched Wong whip the crowd into a frenzy and joined in the chants. "I love this guy; he's a great activist," Lam said. "I watched TV all day long yesterday and decided I needed to come out tonight. In the mainland, there's no freedom; we have to defend our freedoms while we have them."

Grace Ho, 26, a tourism industry worker, said she was inspired to join the rally after seeing broadcasts of the tear-gassing. "There are so many mainlanders pouring into Hong Kong these days, I don't even go to some parts of the city anymore," she said. "Plus, everywhere you hear them talking in Mandarin, and this is Hong Kong; we speak Cantonese here!"

After the confrontations Sunday night, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying appeared on television promising that police would use "maximum discretion" and saying that he hoped people would "keep calm" and not be misled by rumors.

Leung had said over the weekend that local officials would soon launch a new round of public consultations over the 2017 election rules. But on Monday, his administration backed away from any specific timeline, saying that the climate was not right and that authorities would solicit public input at a later date.Benny Tai, an activist with the group Occupy Central With Love and Peace, reiterated calls Monday for the widely disliked Leung to step down. About 9 p.m., a pair of young men carrying a huge cardboard cutout head of the Beijing-backed chief executive sporting vampire fangs came running through the crowds near Central District. Whoops of delight went up among the onlookers, some of whom punched the two-dimensional effigy.

Just how long the protests might go on was unclear, but the territory is heading into a public holiday that officially begins Wednesday, which could bring out even more demonstrators. The government signaled that it doesn't expect an immediate resolution, announcing it would cancel a major annual fireworks celebration scheduled for Wednesday, China's equivalent of the Fourth of July.

Without a cohesive group of leaders directing things, "it's very difficult to predict" how the situation will evolve, said Chi-Keung Choy, professor of comparative politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"It is no longer a movement initiated by [the group] Occupy Central, or the student strike. It became a self-initiated movement," he said.

Despite warnings that the demonstrations could cause serious damage to Hong Kong's economy and reputation as a stable Asian financial hub, the city's stock exchange seemed to take the day's activities in stride, falling less than 2%. Some workers went on strike, including some social workers, as well as employees at the beverage company Swire Coca-Cola Hong Kong.

Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, warned Monday that foreign interference in the situation was unwelcome by Beijing. "Hong Kong belongs to China. Hong Kong affairs are purely China's domestic affairs," she said.

U.S. officials were watching the protests closely, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, and urged authorities in Hong Kong to exercise restraint and protesters to remain peaceful.

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"The United States supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong in accordance with the basic law, and we support the aspirations of the Hong Kong people," Earnest said.

Asked whether the U.S. would like to see such freedoms extended to  mainland China, Earnest said yes.

"We make a point out of every interaction with senior Chinese government officials that respect for basic universal human rights is critically important."

Times staff writer Kathleen Hennessey in Washington, special correspondents Violet Law in Hong Kong and Sean Silbert in Beijing, and Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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