Pro-democracy protesters stepped up Wednesday a "blossom everywhere" campaign of road blocks and vandalism across Hong Kong that has crippled the international financial hub this week and ignited some of the worst violence in five months of unrest.
The new phase in the crisis, which has forced schools and shopping malls to close as well as the shutdown of large chunks of the vital train network, prompted police to warn on Tuesday the city was "on the brink of total collapse".
China, facing the biggest challenge to its rule of the territory since it was handed back by the British in 1997, has insisted it will not buckle to the pressure and warned of tougher security measures.
On Wednesday, commuters across many parts of the city woke to the increasingly familiar scenario of roads choked with bricks, bicycles, couches and other materials that had been laid out by the protesters overnight to block traffic.
Various lines on the subway, used by more than half of the city's 7.5 million people daily, were also suspended due to vandalism, forcing many workers to stay at home.
Meanwhile, masked protesters dressed in their signature black were locked in a series of tense standoffs at university campuses following battles on Tuesday that continued through the night with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
The chaos was part of the largely anonymous protest movement's new strategy of "blossom everywhere", in which small groups of people target as many parts of the city as possible to cause maximum disruption and stretch police resources.
Protesters had until this week largely confined their actions to evenings and the weekends.
The campaign began with an effort to shut down the train network and enforce a city-wide strike on Monday.
The already tense atmosphere escalated on Monday when a police officer shot an unarmed 21-year-old protester, leaving him in a critical condition.
It was only the third confirmed time a police officer had shot someone with live bullets since the unrest began in June.
A masked person on Monday then doused a 57-year-old man, who had been arguing with protesters, with a flammable liquid and set him on fire. He was also hospitalised in a critical condition.
The protest movement has been fuelled by fears that China is choking the liberties and freedoms Hong Kong is meant to have under the terms of the handover deal with the British.
Protesters are demanding the right to freely elect their leaders.
Pro-democracy protesters raise their hands as they are detained by policemen in Central, Hong Kong, Tuesday. Police fired tear gas at protesters who littered streets with bricks and disrupted morning commutes and lunch breaks Tuesday after an especially violent day in Hong Kong's five months of anti-government demonstrations. Vincent Yu, AP
A man reacts as he tries to extinguish a burning Christmas tree at Festival Walk mall in Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong, China on Tuesday. Thomas Peter, Reuters
A protester is seen through broken glass after protesters vandalized Festival Walk mall in Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong on Tuesday. Athit Perawongmetha, Reuters
A student hurls a molotov cocktail into a train parked inside the Chinese University MTR station in Hong Kong, Wednesday. Protesters in Hong Kong battled police on multiple fronts on Tuesday, from major disruptions during the morning rush hour to a late-night standoff at a prominent university, as the 5-month-old anti-government movement takes an increasingly violent turn. Kin Cheung, AP
A protester (back, center) throws a molotov cocktail as another protester (front, center) uses a leaf blower to blow tear gas fired by police at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), in Hong Kong on Tuesday. Dale De La Rey, AFP
Protesters (front, left) and journalists react after police fired tear gas at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), in Hong Kong on Tuesday. Dale De La Rey, AFP
Students walk by a fire during a clash with police at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, Tuesday. Kin Cheung, AP
Pro-democracy protesters take rest near barricades set on a bridge outside the Chinese University campus in Hong Kong, Wednesday. Ng Han Guan, AP Photo
Protesters keep watch for police from an observation point on a bridge over the Tolo Highway at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), in Hong Kong early on Wednesday. Anthony Wallace, AFP
Anti-government protesters gather at the Central District in Hong Kong, China on Wednesday. Athit Perawongmetha, Reuters
Riot police officers detain an anti-government protester during a clash at a demonstration in the Central District in Hong Kong, China on Wednesday. Athit Perawongmetha, Reuters
Riot police officers detain a protester during an anti-government demonstration in the Central district of Hong Kong, China, Wedensday. Athit Perawongmetha, Reuters
People walk by an intersection scattered with bricks and barricades set by pro-democracy protesters outside the Hong Kong Baptist University, in Hong Kong, Wednesday. Police increased security around Hong Kong and its university campuses as they brace for more violence after sharp clashes overnight with anti-government protesters. Vincent Yu, AP
But instead of offering concessions, China has responded with ominous warnings that it is prepared to further curb freedoms, and that it wants tougher security measures in Hong Kong.
On Tuesday, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of China's ruling Communist Party, warned that local district elections due to be held on November 24 may be cancelled if the protesters do not back down.
"Only by supporting the police force to decisively put down the riots can (Hong Kong) return to peace and hold fair elections, to help Hong Kong start again," the commentary said.
Other powerful arms of the Chinese state media have also again raised the prospect this week of the Chinese military being deployed in Hong Kong to end the crisis.
Still, China is not yet prepared to take such drastic action as military intervention as it plays a longer game of weakening and intimidating the protest movement, according to Ben Bland, Sydney-based director of the Southeast Asia Project at the Lowy Institute, a policy think-tank.
"It still seems, as far as we can tell, that the most likely response is going to continue to be led by the Hong Kong authorities and the Hong Kong police," Bland told AFP on Wednesday.
But the events this week have deepened concerns that Hong Kong's police cannot solve the crisis, and that a political solution must be found.
The police force's spokesman, Kong Wing-cheung, appeared to echo those fears on Tuesday.
"Hong Kong's rule of law has been pushed to the brink of total collapse," Kong said.
© Agence France-Presse