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Hong Kong Leader Says Government Will Meet With Demonstrators

Student protesters in Hong Kong resist during a change of shift for local police but backed down after being reassured they could reoccupy the pavement outside the government compound's gate.
Wong Maye-E
Student protesters in Hong Kong resist during a change of shift for local police but backed down after being reassured they could reoccupy the pavement outside the government compound's gate.

Updated at 5:28 p.m. ET

Hong Kong's leader said today that his government has agreed to hold a dialogue with pro-democracy student activists to discuss reforms, but that such a discussion must take place within the context of Chinese law. He also renewed warnings to protesters not to occupy government buildings.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying appeared at a news conference with Chief Secretary Carrie Lam less than half an hour before a deadline set by student activists for his resignation.

According to the South China Morning Post, "Leung said his chief secretary, Lam, had received a letter from the Hong Kong Federation of Students on the 'constitutional development' of Hong Kong. He said that they had 'studied the letter in detail' and appointed Lam to meet with the students."

"The Hong Kong government, including myself, has always been willing to discuss concerns," Leung said. "However, such discussion has to be according to China's law."

In the early morning, the Federation of Students confirmed that they would, indeed, meet with the government.

In a statement, the students continued to call for Leung's resgination and they called for a "public" meeting with Leung's chief secretary.

"At the moment, the main focus of the debate should be the political reform," the students said. "Therefore, our agenda of the public dialogue will also be set based on this central issue."

On the protesters' threat to occupy government buildings at the expiration of their midnight (noon ET) deadline for Leung's resignation, the chief executive said: "The consequences of doing that are very serious."

"So far, we know that students outside the government building are very rational and restrained, so we hope they will continue to be like that," Leung said in a translation by the BBC.

He added that: "We wouldn't want to see some students because of possible attacks on buildings be injured or have confrontations with police."

We pick up our earlier post here:

Police in Hong Kong and China's state media have warned pro-democracy protesters not to try to occupy government buildings.

The Associated Press reports: "Late Thursday afternoon [local time], hundreds of young protesters crowded in front of the gate to the government headquarters, spilling around the sides of the huge building and across the street. Many donned face masks and goggles, some had gas masks and rain capes — all precautions in case police might use tear gas and pepper spray, as they did last weekend to try to disperse demonstrators."

The South China Morning Post, quoting a police source, said boxes of firearms for tear gas and rubber bullets appeared to be among the items moved into government headquarters on Thursday. Photos that appeared on Facebook appeared to confirm that.

The tense standoff came as a midnight deadline set by protesters for the resignation of Hong Kong's leader, Leung Chun-ying, approached. Hong Kong is 12 hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast. The demonstrators have been angered by China's decision to approve all candidates for Leung's replacement in 2017, rather than honor an earlier promise for open elections.

The AP notes: "Both the Chinese government and the student protesters seemed to be losing patience after the weeklong street protests, the biggest challenge to Beijing's authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997."

NPR's Anthony Kuhn, reporting from Hong Kong, says state media are warning of "chaos" if the protests escalate.

Hong Kong Police Chief Superintendent Hui Chun-tak told reporters Thursday: "We stress that police will not tolerate any illegal surrounding of government buildings."

After more than a week of protests, student activists are still considering possible next moves, including occupying government offices. Pro-democracy lawmaker Albert Ho tells Anthony that in any event, the protesters won't back down just because they are hot and tired.

"No one can persuade the demonstrators to leave without achieving anything material, so as to enable them to consider retreating with dignity," Ho said.

Hui says police won't rule out "appropriate force" if the situation escalates. However, The SCMP quotes him as saying the police would not use tear gas against protesters, after their heavy-handed tactics on Sunday generated public condemnation.

The official People's Daily newspaper compared the protests in Hong Kong to the Arab Spring and Eastern Europe's color revolutions, which it said were instigated by Western governments.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.