Hong Kong Leader Offers Talks With Protesters

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying Says He Will Not Step Down Despite Calls for His Resignation

HONG KONG—Student protesters agreed to hold talks with the city’s No. 2 government official, averting a potentially violent confrontation overnight as demonstrators surrounded the office of Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive.

Leung Chun-ying, the city’s leader, refused protesters’ demands to resign but said he would appoint his deputy, Carrie Lam, to hold talks with protesters in an effort to resolve the political crisis in which pro-democracy rallies have choked traffic and paralyzed some of Hong Kong’s busiest districts for the past week.

On Friday morning, the city’s government said its central government offices, which have been a focal point of the protests, will be temporarily closed.

“Staff working in the CGO are advised not to go to the workplace and should work in accordance with the contingency plans of their respective bureaus or departments,” the government said in a statement. “All visits to the CGO will be postponed or canceled.”

The Hang Seng Index opened about 1% lower after two days of holidays.

Student protesters early Friday occupied the main road outside the complex where the office of Hong Kong’s chief executive is located.

The announcement from Mr. Leung—a response to an open letter from one of the student protest groups—came just minutes before a midnight deadline set by protesters for a response to their demands for his resignation. It was the first hint of conciliation from the city’s Beijing-backed government since the standoff began.

“I hope students continue to keep calm,” Mr. Leung said. “We don’t want to cause any conflicts between student protesters and police.”

The protesters had threatened to block more government buildings if they were ignored, and were already obstructing the entrance to the chief executive’s office Thursday. Tensions rose earlier in the day when police were seen loading supplies of antiriot gear, including rubber bullets, into the government compound housing Mr. Leung’s office. Police had also warned demonstrators that they “will not tolerate any illegal surrounding of government buildings.”

After Mr. Leung’s announcement, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the main protest groups, urged the government to detail a time for a public meeting. It also called on Hong Kongers to continue the occupation.

“Whether the protest will escalate depends on the dialogue” with Ms. Lam, it said.

The student group earlier Thursday had published an open letter on their Facebook page, saying it was willing to talk to Ms. Lam, in an open forum, with political reform as “the only topic” they would put on the agenda.

Joshua Wong, leader of the student pro-democracy group Scholarism, delivers a speech on Wednesday outside the government headquarters building.

By asking for the meeting, the group was backing off earlier demands that Mr. Leung resign immediately. It wasn’t clear early Friday when the meeting would take place.

Occupy Central, another group behind democracy rallies, welcomed the news that Ms. Lam would meet with the students, saying it “hopes the talks can provide a turning point in the current political stalemate.” Occupy Central reiterated it believes Mr. Leung must step down.

The core issue in the standoff is Beijing’s decision to effectively prescreen candidates for the election of Hong Kong’s top leader in 2017. Many in Hong Kong are demanding a reversal of that decision to allow for free, open elections. The chief executive is now chosen, without a popular vote, by a committee of 1,200 largely pro-Beijing members.

What began as a student-led rally on Friday, Sept. 26 swelled into a mass protest on Sunday after a pro-democracy group called Occupy Central joined the fray outside the central government offices in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district. Police failed to put an end to the protest that day when it tried to disperse crowds with force and tear gas.

The use of force drew an even-larger sympathetic crowd. The rallies swelled throughout this past week, with sister rallies popping up in other parts of the city.

Mr. Leung’s statement late Thursday, which was heard through shared earphones on cellphones by many on the streets, didn’t satisfy some demonstrators. “The crowds won’t disperse unless he gives a clear response to them instead of a response that just buys him time,” said Lawerence Chak, 26.

Ms. Lam has worked behind the scenes to find a political solution to the standoff. On Thursday, she met with four pro-democracy lawmakers along with four pro-Beijing ones to discuss a resolution, according to Alan Leong, one of the four pro-democracy legislators at the meeting.

Pro-Beijing politicians rallied to chief executive’s defense. Jasper Tsang, president of the city’s Legislative Council, said “Beijing will never allow the government’s downfall just because people put pressure,” he said.

Meanwhile, Regina Ip, a member of the powerful Executive Council, which advises Mr. Leung, said she wants to meet with protest leaders, though she reiterated that Mr. Leung wouldn’t resign as “it would set a bad example.”

Since Sunday, authorities have stepped back from direct confrontations in an attempt to wait them out, but the police warnings and movement of antiriot gear appeared to mark the limits of the city’s willingness to tolerate disruptions.

Almost half of the city’s bus network has been affected by the various blockades. Schools in many parts of Hong Kong Island were closed Friday.

In rousing speeches Thursday night, student leaders including Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old founder of student group Scholarism, told demonstrators that the movement wants to win public support and advised people not to occupy the main road outside the chief executive’s office.

Within the protest groups, signs of fatigue were apparent. “I don’t know how much longer we can go on,” said Alan Leung, 17. “I’ll be here, but we need more protesters to come, day and night. It’s going to be a long campaign. We need to take the long view.”

As the sun came up in Hong Kong on Oct. 2, protesters attempted to block the entrance to the chief executive’s office. Getty Images

Christy Kwong, a 22-year-old design student said she didn’t know how long the protests would continue. “People are tired and they have to go back to school or work,” she said outside the chief executive’s office Thursday night. “We can’t be here forever.”

Others seemed committed for the long haul. “This is my second home. After work I eat and sleep here. I can stay a long time,” said Karen Leung, 18, an office worker.

Meanwhile, the city is under steep pressure from Beijing to find a resolution to the standoff.

The Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper warned Thursday in a front-page commentary that the protests in Hong Kong could spin out of control and damage the city’s economy and long-term prosperity.

“These actions themselves are just a desecration of democracy and rule of law,” the unsigned commentary read, marking the strongest language yet from Beijing against the demonstrations. Chinese state media have repeatedly called the demonstrations in Hong Kong illegal and out of step with the city’s strong tradition of respecting rule of law.

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