Senior Hong Kong government officials will meet student leaders for the first time in an attempt to defuse more than three weeks of protests which have brought parts of the Asian financial centre to a standstill.
The talks will be broadcast live on Tuesday, but little hope is seen for any breakthrough as both sides refuse to give ground in resolving the worst political crisis in the former British colony since it was handed back to China in 1997.
A few hours ahead of talks, Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s leader, told reporters “There’s room for discussion there, there’s room to make the nominating committee more democratic.”
If it's entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month. Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies.
Protesters are calling for free elections when Hong Kong chooses its next leader in 2017, but China insists on screening candidates first.
Chun-ying, told foreign media on Monday that free elections were unacceptable, partly because they risked giving Hong Kong’s poor and working class a dominant voice in politics.
“Student demands for direct input from the public on candidates were impossible,” Leung said.
“If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month,” Leung told the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
“Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies,” added Leung, warning of the dangers of populism and insisting that the electoral system needed to protect minority groups.
The government had cancelled talks scheduled for earlier this month after the students called for the protests to expand.
Experts said the talks may yield small confidence-building measures and an agreement to continue the dialogue, but were unlikely to bridge the chasm between the two sides or end the demonstrations.
Leung will not take part in the talks. Instead, he will send five envoys including Hong Kong’s number two official, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam.
Nathan Law, a member of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said: “This is a historic moment because it’s the first time ever in Hong Kong that a group of protesters are able to sit on an equal footing with the government, to say: ‘we don’t agree with you, we want democracy’.”
Giant screens will be set up in protest zones to beam the talks live to demonstrators.
“So far we’ve seen no hope that they will reach some agreement in the coming week because both sides have different expectations of the dialogue,” said James Sung, a political analyst at City University of Hong Kong.