Hong Kong protests: Government hopes for talks next week but with same condition

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying said the government hopes to hold talks with student protest leaders next week. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying said the government hopes to hold talks with student protest leaders next week. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG'S government said  it hoped to reopen talks with student protest leaders next week, but repeated the condition that negotiations must be held  within the city's constitutional framework.

The condition - which has been  the government's position since the Occupy Central movement started on Sept 28 -  is unlikely to  go down well with the protesters  who have been demanding full democracy for Hong Kong.

"Over the last few days, including this morning through third parties, we expressed a wish to the students that we would like to start a dialogue to discuss universal suffrage as soon as we can and hopefully within the following week," Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying said at a news conference on Thursday afternoon.

The government is planning to ask  university vice-chancellors  to act as moderators between the government and the students, he said.

The Hong Kong government abruptly called off the talks last Thursday (Oct 9), saying it was impossible to have constructive dialogue with the protesters after they threatened to escalate protests if their demands were not met. These included Mr Leung's resignation, that Beijing rescinds its rules on Hong Kong's chief executive election and that the public should be granted the right to nominate candidates.

Besides the dialogue,  said Mr Leung, the government  was also working to restore public order and traffic flow across Hong Kong, and to start  the second round of public consultation on electoral reform in the fourth quarter of this year.

The offer of new talks came after a two-day spike in violence between police and the protesters as they battled over a series of barricades near the government's besieged headquarters in Admiralty.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of central Hong Kong since Sept  28 to demand the right to pick their own candidates in the  chief executive  election in 2017. 

This followed a decision by the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee in China on Aug  31  that election candidates have to be screened by a nominating committee, which will likely pick only pro-Beijing candidates. 

The election is meant to be the first time that all Hong Kongers get to vote for their leader,  but protesters say having Beijing vet the nominations  is not the kind of universal suffrage that Hong Kongers  want.

When asked what he hoped to achieve in the meeting with protesters, Mr Leung said   he hoped he could make them understand that requesting the withdrawal of the NPC's decision, or the changing of Hong Kong's  Basic Law, is "not practical" and that the various parties have to "draw a line between possibilities and impossibilities".

"The most constructive thing that the Hong Kong government can offer the students is to sit down and discuss what we can do together under the framework," he said.

He added that the resumption of talks does not mean that the authorities will not continue in their efforts to clear protest sites, which have blocked traffic flow in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok for more than two weeks. 

"Appropriate action will be taken at an appropriate time," he said, adding that the clearing of sites also does not mean that the talks are off.

Mr Leung also defended the police, which  came under fire after seven policemen were caught on video assaulting  protester  Ken Tsang, a member of the pro-democracy Civic Party, who suffered bruises on his face and body.

He said that the authorities have a mechanism to investigate impartially into the accusations of police brutality and that the matter "should not be politicised".

The police force had been very hardworking and had shown "maximum tolerance" under pressure, he added. 

The seven policemen had been suspended,  Senior Superintendent Kong Man Keung said on Thursday.

chengwee@sph.com.sg