Hong Kong protests: HK leader refuses to quit, appoints top official to talk to students

Hong Kong's embattled leader Leung Chun-ying said he had no intention of stepping down despite calls from pro-democracy protesters for him to do so by Thursday midnight.

He warned them that the consequences of occupying government buildings would be serious, but said that the police will exercise "maximum restraint" towards the students and young people now staging sit-ins on major roads in parts of Hong Kong.

“I will not resign because I have to continue to do a good job in pushing for political reform,” he said.

But Mr Leung, speaking just minutes before the ultimatum for him to resign expired, agreed to talks, appointing Chief Secretary Carrie Lam to hold a meeting with student protesters soon to discuss political reforms. This, said Mrs Lam, will be arranged "as soon as possible".

The protesters reacted with half-hearted jeers to Mr Leung's announcement. Some angrier ones tried to block Lung Wo Road, which links Hong Kong Island to Kowloon on the other side of Victoria Harbour. But student leaders tried to stop them, fearing a public backlash over massive congestion on the crucial road.

The Hong Kong authorities had earlier urged the demonstrators to immediately end their blockade of the city centre. The protests, nearly a week old, have brought large parts of the Asian financial hub to a standstill.

Thousands of them gathered outside the Chief Executive's Office on Thursday and their numbers were growing, after they vowed to surround or occupy government buildings if Mr Leung does not step down.

They faced off with ranks of police equipped with helmets. Earlier, police officers were moving what appears to be riot gear - including tear gas and rubber bullets - into the compound. They made it clear that it will take "resolute enforcement actions" if protesters charge police cordon lines.

The protesters demand that Beijing grant fully free elections in the semi-autonomous city. In August, China said Hong Kongers would be able to vote for their next leader in 2017 but only those vetted by a loyalist committee would be allowed to stand - something demonstrators have dismissed as a "fake democracy".

The night's developments come at the end of a day when clear signals were sent that Mr Leung had no intention of capitulating to the protesters' demands.

Beijing, which has dismissed the protesters' street occupation as illegal, said it was behind the Hong Kong leader "firmly and unshakably" and pledging support for the police. Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily said in a front page commentary Thursday that the central Chinese government had "full confidence" in Mr Leung and "will resolutely support his leadership".

Separately, Mr Lam Woon Kwong, convenor of the Executive Council that acts as the Chief Executive's Cabinet, told The Straits Time Thursday that "the authority of the Government will be totally undermined if he stands down in the face of crowd pressure".

He also said that Beijing will not change its decision on Hong Kong's constitutional reform - another of the protesters' demands.

This means that the only wriggle room that the Hong Kong government has to compromise with the protesters is to take "an open approach" in the next round of public consultation, he says.

Even then, he admits, given that the consultation has to take place within the framework of what China's legislature, the National People's Council, has laid down, "it is unlikely to satisfy the protesters even if the Government promises to be flexible here".

The only way out of the impasse that he sees is "to appeal to the good sense of the ordinary people to convince the protesters that their sympathy, tolerance and patience will run out pretty soon and that it would be in the protesters' interest to retreat gracefully and pocket their political capital now, otherwise they might face increasing public dissatisfaction".

The worry though, he says, is that this "may take a long time, and the danger of the crowds getting into unplanned or unexpected incidents will be increasing day by day".

Urging that there be a dialogue between both camps, Mrs Regina Ip, now a member of the executive council, tells The Straits Times on Thursday morning that she is trying to broker a forum between five representatives on each side "to talk over all the issues", but without setting any pre-conditions.

On whether Mr Leung is agreeable to this, she says that he has been informed and that his advisers have urged him to attend such a dialogue.

"But of course there cannot be any pre-conditions for any resignations," she says.

The protest organisers have said that they are open to talking to Hong Kong's No 2 Carrie Lam, though not Mr Leung himself.

Meanwhile, the world's eyes are on the developments in the city.

United States President Barack Obama said that the superpower was watching the protests closely, in a message transmitted during a meeting Wednesday between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US national security adviser Susan Rice at the White House.

He expressed hope that differences between the authorities here and protesters would be addressed peacefully.

Earlier, Mr Wang Yi met US Secretary of State John Kerry angrily warning Washington to back off, and saying Beijing would not tolerate "illegal acts".

Mr Kerry said that Hong Kongers should have a free hand in choosing their leaders.

xueying@sph.com.sg

(Input from Reuters, additional reporting by Pearl Liu)