Hong Kong averts showdown as leader dangles dialogue with protesters

Ahead of a midnight deadline, Leung Chun-ying told students he would send a deputy to meet with them, but ruled out his resignation. Protesters have threatened to occupy government buildings in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region of China.

Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Protesters attend a rally as they block a street, outside the offices of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, in Hong Kong, October 2, 2014. Hong Kong authorities on Thursday urged thousands of pro-democracy protesters to immediately end their blockade of the city center and said any attempt to occupy administrative buildings would be met with a resolute and firm response.

Hong Kong’s top official, Leung Chun-ying, has refused to bow to protesters’ demands that he resign, but a midnight deadline they had set for his departure passed without incident as both sides steered away from confrontation.

In his first conciliatory gesture after several days of street sit-ins, Mr. Leung said late Thursday that his deputy, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, would meet student leaders “soon” to discuss the electoral reform program that has sparked their ire. China has insisted on vetting candidates for elections in 2017.

Outside Leung’s office, where several thousand protesters had gathered, some wearing googles and face masks, in response to a call to occupy government offices, student leaders urged restraint. “Don’t fight the police tonight,” said Joshua Wong, one of the student leaders. “The rubber bullets and the gas, it is all a trap." 

Leung said that the police would adopt a “maximum tolerance approach” to the protesters, but warned them that occupying government offices would incur serious consequences. "I will not resign because I have to continue with the work for elections," he told a late-night press conference. 

Demonstrators crammed between crowd control barriers outside the chief executive’s office jeered his words, broadcast via a transistor radio and a megaphone that one protester held up.

“It is good that they want to open a dialogue, but it doesn’t mean that our voice will be heard,” says Eugene Chan, a high school student in the crowd.

But the mood on the streets stayed calm; demonstrators cheered calls for restraint from student leaders and the heads of two major Hong Kong universities.

Direct action

On Wednesday, protest leaders had threatened to overrun government offices if Leung did not step down by midnight on Thursday. But few of the thousands of young people thronging the road outside the government headquarters on Thursday afternoon appeared to have much stomach for such direct action.

“I’m considering my future and my prospects,” says Keith So, a student surveyor. “If I climbed over the wall and entered (Leung’s) office I would be jailed, and then the government or a big company wouldn’t consider my job application.”

“I understand why they want to escalate the action, but I wouldn’t go to the front myself,” adds Allen Yu. “I’m still studying and my family is putting pressure on me.”

Unspoken was another major concern for many students here: a criminal record – which a protester would risk by breaking into government property – makes it a great deal harder to obtain visas for foreign travel.

With no sign that the Chinese government is prepared to withdraw its plan for the 2017 chief executive elections, some demonstrators questioned Thursday how much longer their movement could maintain its momentum.

“I don’t think this whole thing will go on much beyond the weekend,” says Vanessa Li, a student at Hong Kong Baptist University who has been boycotting her classes for the past week. “But when we go back to our universities we’ll keep fighting, just in different ways.”

The challenge for the protest organizers now, says Michael Davis, a law professor at Hong Kong University whom students asked for advice on Thursday, “is to find new ways of running this protest” beyond street sit-ins. “They are going to have to be more inventive,” Mr. Davis says.

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