Hong Kong’s leader tried to soothe tensions with student-led democracy protesters yesterday by reviving an offer of talks, but public anger over a video of police kicking a handcuffed activist complicated efforts to end an increasingly bitter political stand-off.
Chief executive Leung Chun-ying said the government was ready to start a dialogue with protest leaders as soon as next week. There was no immediate response from the student leaders, and it was unclear whether the proposed meeting could overcome the vast differences between the two sides.
Many in Hong Kong were outraged after a group of police officers was caught on camera on Wednesday kicking a protester with his hands cuffed behind his back.
The seven officers, who have been suspended, were among hundreds who battled 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.
Tensions between the two sides have escalated in the past few days as riot police armed with pepper spray and batons moved to retake some occupied streets.
“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,” Mr Leung said, 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 28 September to press for a greater say in choosing the semi-autonomous Chinese city’s leader in an inaugural direct election, promised for 2017.
Mr Leung did not directly respond to questions about when police would move in to clear the sites, though he said that while authorities had tolerated the civil disobedience movement until now, it “cannot go on indefinitely”.
He said: “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.”
Authorities angered protesters when they 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. Thiseffectively means that Beijing can vet candidates before they go to a public vote. Mr Leung stressed Beijing’s position woud not change but said there was scope for negotiations on how the committee that nominates candidates is formed.
“In the second round of consultation, we can still listen to everyone’s views. There is still room to discuss issues including the exact formation of the nomination committee,” he said.
Beijing 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 on 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.