Hong Kong’s embattled leader offered yesterday to hold talks between his government and pro-democracy protesters but said he would resist their demands for him to resign.
Chief executive Leung Chun-ying said he asked Hong Kong’s top civil servant to arrange talks with the protesters, who are seeking electoral reform.
The massive street demonstrations are the biggest challenge to China’s authority in Hong Kong since Beijing took control of the former British colony in 1997.
Mr Leung made the comments at a news conference minutes before a deadline set by protesters for him to step down.
Standing beside him, the chief secretary, Carrie Lam, said she would seek to arrange talks with student leaders as soon as possible.
“I hope both sides will be satisfied,” she said. “Students had wanted a public meeting but I hope we can have some flexibility to discuss details.”
Before Mr Leung’s announcement, the heads of two major universities appeared before a jittery crowd massed in front of the entrance to the leader’s office and appealed for calm.
During the day, protesters prepared face masks and goggles while police brought in tear gas and other riot gear as tensions grew in an increasingly tense standoff outside the government compound near the waterfront.
Police warned of serious consequences if protesters tried to surround or occupy government buildings. The protesters threatened to occupy if Mr Leung did not quit by the end of Thursday. In his news conference, held just before midnight, Mr Leung said the authorities would tolerate the protests as long as police lines were not charged.
Both the Chinese government and the protesters seemed to be losing patience after a week of demonstrations. “It’s turning out to be a high-stakes poker game. The stakes are rising,” said Willy Lam, a politics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Something will have to give because the pressure keeps mounting on both sides to make a compromise.”
In a reflection of growing concern in Beijing, the Communist Party’s People’s Daily warned yesterday of “chaos” in Hong Kong, and expressed strong support for Mr Leung.
It said the central government firmly supports the Hong Kong police “to handle illegal activities in accordance with the law”.
The protesters oppose Beijing’s decision in August that all candidates in the city’s first direct election in 2017 for the top post must be approved by a mostly pro-Beijing committee. They accuse the central government of reneging on a promise of “universal suffrage”.
The students began occupying the area outside the government compound housing Mr Leung’s office late on Wednesday, at times reluctantly moving to allow police vehicles and an ambulance to enter. As yesterday wore on, they grew increasingly resistant to allowing more vehicles in after police carried in tubs labelled “rubber batons” and tear gas.
“I don’t think we should let the supplies go through with the ambulance. Who knows if they will sneak in more rubber bullets and tear gas? We shouldn’t let them bring in more supplies that will eventually hurt us,” said Lap Cheung, 40, a web developer.
It was unclear if the students would occupy government buildings if their demands are not met. Police issued a warning that such moves would not be tolerated. “Police emphasise that is unlawful behaviour,” they said in a statement. “If they refuse to comply with advice and warnings, police will take resolute enforcement actions.”
The protesters did not reveal their plans. Activist Joshua Wong urged the public to come out in support.