HONG KONG (AFP) - Hong Kong's Beijing-backed leader Leung Chun Ying told media that if the government met pro-democracy protesters' demands it would result in the city's poorer people dominating elections.
In an interview with foreign media, carried in the Wall Street Journal and International New York Times, the embattled chief executive reiterated his position that free elections were impossible.
Demonstrators have paralysed parts of Hong Kong with mass rallies and road blockades for more than three weeks, in one of the biggest challenges to Beijing's authority since the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests of 1989.
Mr Leung's comments were published just hours before talks between senior government officials and student leaders to end the impasse are scheduled to take place later on Tuesday.
China has offered Hong Kongers the chance to vote for their next leader in 2017. But only those vetted by a committee expected to be loyal to Beijing will be allowed to stand - something protesters have labelled as "fake democracy".
Mr Leung said that if candidates were nominated by the public then the largest sector of society would likely dominate the electoral process.
"If it's entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you'd be talking to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 (S$2,250) a month," Mr Leung said in comments published by the WSJ and INYT.
Semi-autonomous Hong Kong has one of the biggest income divides in the world, with growing discontent at increased inequality and exorbitant property prices fuelling the protests which turned increasingly violent at the end of last week.
There are fears any further clashes between police and protesters could derail Tuesday's discussions.
Mr Leung's latest comments are likely to further fuel the anger of protesters who see him as hapless, out of touch and pandering to the whims of a small number of tycoons who dominate the financial hub.
His quotes also echo that of Mr Wang Zhenmin, a well-connected scholar and regular advisor to Beijing.
Mr Wang said recently that greater democratic freedom in the semi-autonomous city must be balanced against the city's powerful business elite who would have to share their "slice of the pie" with voters.
"The business community is in reality a very small group of elites in Hong Kong who control the destiny of the economy in Hong Kong. If we ignore their interests, Hong Kong capitalism will stop (working)," he said in August.
Mr Leung played down expectations ahead of the long-delayed talks with student leaders that will be broadcast live.
"We are not quite sure what they will say... at the session," he said.