Hong Kong student leaders and government officials talked Tuesday but seemingly agreed on little, with the city's Beijing-backed leader reaffirming an unwillingness to compromise on the key demand of democracy activists engaged in a near month-long protest.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told reporters that the government won't let the public nominate candidates to run in inaugural direct elections to succeed him in 2017, as demanded by thousands of protesters occupying main streets across the city. But he added that there was room to discuss how to form the key 1,200-member nominating committee.
"How we should elect the 1,200 so that the nominating committee will be broadly representative — there's room for discussion there," Leung said. "There's room to make the nominating committee more democratic, and this is one of the things we very much want to talk to not just the students but the community at large about."
Leung said such changes could be covered in a second round of talks over the next several months.
But student leader Alex Chow said during televised talks with government officials on Tuesday that an August decision by China's legislature ruling out so-called civil nomination and requiring the nominating committee had "emasculated" Hong Kong.
"We don't want anointment," said Chow, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of three groups leading the protests.
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows the financial hub wide-ranging autonomy and specifies universal suffrage as an ultimate goal.
But Beijing is wary about copycat demands for reform on the mainland eroding one-party rule. In August, Communist Party rulers in Beijing offered Hong Kong residents the opportunity to vote for their own leader in 2017, but said only two to three candidates could run after getting majority backing from a 1,200-person nominating committee, which is widely expected to be stacked with Beijing loyalists.
The protesters have decried the stipulation as a “fake” Chinese-style democracy and refuse to leave the streets unless Beijing allows open nominations.
No willingness to compromise
During Tuesday's televised talks, Chow and four other student leaders, wearing black T-shirts that said "Freedom Now!," faced off against five senior government officials.
During the discussion, Chow took aim at comments made by Leung on Monday that Hong Kong shouldn't have broader democracy because the poor would have too much say in setting policies in the Asian financial hub.
Leung's remarks, to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, underlined how protesters' concerns have been fueled by discontent over soaring inequality in the former British colony.
"An unequal nominating committee is no good for the wealth gap in Hong Kong," Chow said. "Should it continue to serve business conglomerates, won't it continue to deprive the political rights of the 1 million people living in poverty?"
The officials stuck to the government line that Hong Kong's mini-constitution could not be amended to accommodate protesters' demands, while also saying that many others don't share their views.
"We hope you would understand that there are a lot of people who are not in Mong Kok, who are not in Admiralty. There are many people at home who aren't insisting on civil nomination," said Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen.
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, the government's No. 2 official, repeatedly chided the students for being "idealistic" rather than "pragmatic." Both sides showed little willingness to compromise, and further talks were expected.
'Not going to stop'
Thousands of people watched the talks on giant screens in the main protest area in Admiralty, on a highway next to city government headquarters. They cheered student leaders who criticized government intransigence and booed Lam when she commended police for exercising restraint.
Police armed with pepper spray and batons have clashed violently in recent days with protesters armed with umbrellas and goggles in the blue-collar district of Mong Kok over control of the streets. Nearly 300 people have been injured since the protest began.
The protesters heaped on more boos when the screens went black after the talks ended, reflecting what several said was their overall disappointment with the meeting.
"The government didn't do anything," said Alex Chan, a 40-year-old technology consultant. "But it's only the start, the first time. Everybody has to find a way to end this situation."
Val Chow, a 30-year-old museum employee, said protesters would now have to dig in for the long haul. She has been visiting the protest site after work every night to support a friend camped out there and other demonstrators.
"They won't leave at this moment because the government didn't give us a reason to go," she said. "This is not going to stop."