LONDON - Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten called on Wednesday for a new period of genuine consultation over demands for greater democracy in the former British colony which is witnessing its worst protests since China resumed its rule 17 years ago.
"I think we've got to see dialogue replacing tear gas and pepper sprays," Mr Patten, the last British governor before the 1997 handover of the territory to China, told BBC radio. "I think in order to save face for Beijing and for the Hong Kong government, the right thing to do is to embark on a new period of consultation, make it genuine consultation, because there are a lot of very moderate people on the pro-democracy side," he added, according to a Reuters report.
Thousands of people have been thronging the streets of Hong Kong for the last five days to protest against China's demands to vet the candidates for a 2017 leadership election. The protests are the worst in Hong Kong since China resumed its rule and pose one of the biggest political challenges for Beijing since it violently crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Student leader Agnes Chow of the Scholarism student movement vowed Wednesday to step up the pro-democracy protests - including a possible occupation of government offices - unless the city's leader Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, steps down within a day, AFP reported.
But Mr Leung has reportedly adopted a new strategy to marshal the protests: allow the demonstrations to continue until the protesters tire or lose support from the wider public, Wall Street Journal has reported quoting a person familiar with the matter.
The impetus to resolve the standoff peacefully has come from the Chinese government in Beijing, this person said. "Beijing has set a line to C.Y. You cannot open fire," this person said. "You must halt it in a peaceful way."
The thinking behind the tactic is to resolve the standoff by peaceful means and comes after a move on Sunday to deploy tear gas backfired on the government.
Britain's Mr Patten had also dismissed fears of direct Chinese intervention and the possibility of another Tiananmen square massacre. "I cannot believe that the Chinese leadership would be so crazy," he said. "I can't believe that they would act in such a brutal and immoral way."
China was concerned about its relationship and image with the rest of the world, he added. "I cannot believe it would be so stupid as to do anything like send in the army."
He said the protesters were merely standing up for what they were promised in the territory's Basic Law, which was drafted in accordance with an agreement on Hong Kong between Britain and China in 1984, ahead of the 1997 handover.
"In the Basic Law and in the promises that people were given, it's absolutely clear that the pace of democratisation is a matter for the Hong Kong government; it is described as being within Hong Kong's 'high degree of autonomy'," Mr Patten said. "It is absolutely absurd to say that this is all decided by the authorities in Beijing."
Mr Patten said he believed earlier Hong Kong leaders had probably failed to make Beijing aware of the strength of pro-democracy feeling, the Reuters report added.