HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s leader said Thursday he is ready to start talks with student pro-democracy protest leaders as soon as next week, suggesting a breakthrough in a political crisis that has seen activists taking over the city’s key business districts for almost three weeks.
But Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying reiterated that Beijing will not retract election restrictions that protesters oppose, raising questions whether the proposed meeting can overcome the vast differences between the two sides.
“As long as students or other sectors in Hong Kong are prepared to focus on this issue, yes we are ready, we are prepared to start the dialogue,” he told reporters. “This is why over the past few days … we expressed the wish to students that we’d like to start the dialogue to discuss universal suffrage as soon as we can, and hopefully within the following week.”
Leung did not directly respond to questions about when police will move in to clear out protesters, who have taken over major roads and streets in the city’s business districts since Sept. 28 to press for a greater say in choosing the city’s leader in the territory’s first direct elections.
He said authorities have tolerated the civil disobedience movement until now but it “cannot go on indefinitely.”
“Going forward, we cannot allow the occupying of streets to have a negative impact on Hong Kong society. Police will use appropriate methods to deal with this problem,” he said.
Authorities angered protesters when they called off a scheduled meeting with student leaders last week, saying talks were unlikely to produce constructive results.
Protesters oppose the Chinese central government’s ruling that a committee stacked with pro-Beijing elites should screen candidates in the territory’s first direct elections, promised in 2017. That effectively means that Beijing can vet the nominees before they go a public vote.
Leung stressed that Beijing’s position will not change – but there is scope for negotiations in how the committee that nominates candidates is formed.
“In the second round of consultation, we can still listen to everyone’s views. There is still room to discuss issues including the exact formation of the nomination committee,” he said.
Tensions between the two sides have escalated in the past few days, as riot police armed with pepper spray and batons moved to clear activists from the occupied streets.
Public anger over the aggressive tactics used by police erupted Wednesday after local TV showed several officers taking a protester around a dark corner and kicking him repeatedly on the ground. Police said it will investigate, and seven officers allegedly involved in the incident have been reassigned.
Leung defended the police force, saying they have behaved with more restraint than in many other places.
China’s central government has condemned the mostly peaceful demonstrations, the biggest challenge to its authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.
A front-page editorial Wednesday in the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece, said Hong Kong’s protests “are doomed to fail.”
There were no signs, however, that Beijing was planning to become directly involved in suppressing them.