Hong Kong’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying says he won’t resign, amid escalating calls from student protesters that he step down.
At a news conference shortly before the protesters’ midnight deadline last night for his resignation, Mr Leung said that constitutional reforms slated for 2017 would only take place within restrictions outlined by Beijing.
Mr Leung also announced that he has appointed the chief secretary, Carrie Lam, to meet with protesters to discuss Hong Kong’s constitutional development.
“I hope that students meeting with Carrie Lam can solve the problem,” Mr Leung said, stressing that police would continue to exercise restraint.
Earlier on Thursday, Ms Lam had met with pro-democracy and pro-Beijing lawmakers in her official residence. Student protestors had requested a public meeting with Hong Kong leaders but Lam said she hoped they would be flexible.
In his address the chief executive repeatedly called the protests “illegal” and said they had “already seriously affected Hong Kong’s economy and government functioning” and that they could not continue.
“All this time the government and the police has used the greatest degree of tolerance to allow them (protesters) to hold different types of assemblies to express their demands and concerns,” Mr Leung said.
“In any other place in the world, if there are protesters surrounding government buildings ... then the problem and the result would be severe,” he added.
Mr Leung stressed that his conciliatory move was not because students had threatened to storm government buildings.
Last night, some protestors issued an ultimatum to Mr Leung -- “You have until the end of the day Thursday to resign”, or they would occupy government buildings.
In response, Hong Kong police have warned the protestors that any such escalation would be met with “decisive enforcement.”
Tensions were ratcheted up even further when reports emerged that police were seen unloading boxes of tear gas and rubber bullets close to the city’s besieged government headquarters.
In a front-page editorial in the party mouthpiece People’s Daily, China said it fully supported the Hong Kong leader and warned of “unimaginable consequences” if demonstrations by pro-democracy campaigners continue.
Earlier yesterday, in Washington DC, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi slammed the protests as an illegal gathering that had severely disrupted the social order in Hong Kong.
But even as the rhetoric on both sides has intensified, many observers believe a compromise of sorts must be reached.
China’s leaders are already facing a number of formidable challenges as it is, without having to worry about instability in the former British colony.
Following the press conference, scores of protesters called for calm and linked arms in an attempt to stop other protesters from blocking street traffic.
Earlier in the evening, student leader Joshua Wong urged demonstrators not to block street traffic or rush police barricades.
“Tonight we do not want to get into the government areas,” Mr Wong said. “I do not want to see anyone injured in this revolution.”
As the week has progressed, both sides have steadily hardened their positions, rather than find common ground for compromise.
By declaring that he has no intention of stepping down and that reform must take place within the strictures laid out by Beijing, Leung has left little to talk about.
He is no doubt hoping that enough time will pass for the student movement to fracture and ultimately run out of steam.
At the very least, his last-minute press conference has preserved the possibility, however slim, for a peaceful resolution to the impasse.