Hong Kong, Bloomberg News—Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said his government is ready to meet student leaders next week to discuss the city’s first leadership election as he seeks to end three weeks of pro-democracy protests.
He said he hoped a vice chancellor of a Hong Kong university could be persuaded to host the talks with the students who have rallied as many as 200,000 people to the streets. The protesters are demanding that China reverse a ruling that candidates for the election of Leung’s successor in 2017 be vetted by a committee. Leung said that decision was not negotiable.
“The central authorities have said clearly that they will not retract the decision of the standing committee of August 31,” he said. “We would like to explore with them what else we can do together so that the 5 million eligible voters in Hong Kong would have the first opportunity in Hong Kong history to vote in the Chief Executive in 2017.”
The government was working on three fronts—starting a dialogue with the students, clearing the streets of protesters and preparing for further planned consultations on Hong Kong’s electoral process, Leung said. The effort for talks didn’t preclude further actions to remove protesters who continue to block key roads in the city of 7.2 million people.
“Dialogue and clearing protesters are two different issues,” he said. “We won’t stop clearing protesters because we are having dialogue. We won’t stop having dialogue because we are clearing the sites.”
While he offered talks, Leung also said that freely choosing candidates for chief executive would violate the Basic Law, the city’s de-facto constitution, meaning the protesters most fundamental demand was off the table. That begs the question of what proposed talks can accomplish.
“The National Peoples Congress decision already deprived us of true democracy and so any dialogue that cannot challenge the NPC can have no meaning unless there is some concession from the central government or the Hong Kong government,” said Lee Cheuk Yan, chairman of the Labour Party that supports the students and their non-violent protests.
The Standing Committee of China’s legislature ruled in August that the first election of the chief executive would go ahead, though candidates for the post would have to be screened by a 1,200 member nominating committee. Pro-democracy forces say the mechanism will guarantee a leader loyal to the government in Beijing.
That ruling and Leung’s backing for the decision triggered the protests that began on September 26 and spread to huge swathes of the city after police used tear gas on demonstrators two days later, sparking public outrage and broadening support for the students.
Leung’s announcement on the new attempt at talks came in the wake of public outrage over the alleged beating of a protester by police Wednesday that led the ranks of the demonstrations to swell anew. The seven officers involved in the incident were suspended today.
Leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Students will meet soon to consider the offer and will issue a response later Thursday, said standing committee member Tommy Cheung.
On October 2 Leung said he had appointed chief secretary Carrie Lam to talk with students. Preliminary discussions produced an agreement to hold direct talks on October 10. Lam pulled out on October 9 after student leaders calls for stepped up civil disobedience because of the limited scope of the negotiations.
Raymond Tam, secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, said at the press conference he looked forward to the new talks where the government could explain the legal constraints it faces. He urged students not to consider the structure of the 2017 elections as definitive, saying there would be room to push for changes to future elections.
“We have to be realistic. There are many years ahead for our young students,” he said. “If they can look beyond 2017, maybe many of their aspirations can be addressed in the future.”