HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s leader tried to soothe tensions with student-led democracy protesters Thursday by reviving an offer of talks, though public anger over a video of police kicking a handcuffed activist complicates efforts to end an increasingly bitter political standoff.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the government is ready to meet with student leaders as soon as next week, but urged them to be pragmatic, reiterating that Beijing will not change its mind on election restrictions. That raised doubts that the proposed meeting can overcome the vast differences between the two sides.
Alex Chow of the Hong Kong Federation of Students welcomed Leung’s offer but criticized the government for setting preconditions. Many other demonstrators gathered in the main protest zone echoed his view.
“I paid attention to what (Leung) said but I couldn’t find anything constructive. He didn’t say anything new and I don’t think it is going to break this deadlock,” said Tong Wing-ho, 26.
Tensions between the authorities and the protesters have escalated in the past few days as riot police armed with pepper spray and batons moved to retake some occupied streets.
Many residents were outraged after a group of police officers was caught on camera early Wednesday kicking a protester with his hands cuffed behind his back. The seven officers, who have been suspended, were among hundreds battling with activists for two nights in a row over control of a busy road next to city government headquarters and near the protesters’ main occupation zone.
“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,” Leung told reporters, adding that middlemen, whom he did not identify, had been in touch with student protest leaders to convey the government’s wishes.
The protesters have taken over major roads and streets in business and shopping districts across the city since Sept. 26 to press for a greater say in choosing the semiautonomous Chinese city’s leader in an inaugural direct election, promised for 2017.
Leung did not directly respond to questions about when police will move in to clear the sites, though he said that while authorities have tolerated the civil disobedience movement until now, 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 first proposed and then abruptly 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 election. That effectively means that Beijing can vet candidates before they go to a public vote.
Leung said that ruling must be respected, though there is room for negotiations on how the committee that nominates candidates is formed.
“There is still room to discuss issues including the exact formation of the nomination committee,” he said.
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 the protests “are doomed to fail.” There were no signs, however, that Beijing was planning to become directly involved in suppressing them.