Leung Chun-ying refuses to quit but offers talks with students
Carrie Lam delegated to meet protest leaders in dramatic twist just minutes before ultimatum for the chief executive to stand down expired
Embattled Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying last night rejected calls by protesters besieging his office for him to resign, but delegated Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to negotiate with student leaders.
Speaking a few minutes before a midnight deadline set by protesters demanding he quit expired, Leung said he would not step down "because I have to continue to do the work of Hong Kong electoral reform".
He said he had assigned Lam to meet representatives of the Federation of Students.
"I hope the chief secretary's dialogue with the federation's representatives will herald further communication with various sectors on political reform," Leung said.
A government source said the meeting would probably take place tomorrow.
The dramatic twist came after the federation sent an open letter to Lam earlier in the day calling for dialogue. A government source said the students did not insist on Leung resigning and on Beijing retracting its decision to limit electoral reform before the meeting could take place.
By putting his more popular deputy in charge of the discussion, Leung bought some short-term relief, said analyst Ivan Choy Chi-keung. But he warned that the chance of reaching a consensus was still "slim".
Leung also promised that police would exercise the "greatest restraint" towards protesters as long as they did not try to breach police lines.
Tensions had risen earlier in the evening after a three-day lull. Swarms of young protesters, wearing masks and goggles, laid siege to the chief executive's office in Tamar, Admiralty, as the midnight deadline for Leung to resign drew closer.
Police in riot gear formed a defensive line and the two sides stood eyeball to eyeball in the narrow streets outside the government building.
Just before Leung and Lam's sudden press conference, University of Hong Kong vice chancellor Professor Peter Mathieson and Chinese University vice chancellor Professor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu appeared before the crowd and urged restraint.
While many young protesters said they were not satisfied with Leung's answer and accused him of shifting responsibility to Lam, they did not carry out a threat to storm government buildings.
The student group earlier called for the occupation of key administration buildings if Leung did not step down.
The drama capped the fifth day of an unprecedented civil disobedience movement triggered by Beijing's decision on electoral reform and a heavy-handed police response on the first day of the protest in which they used tear gas on protesters.
Crowds seemed to thin out earlier in the day but the atmosphere became tense in the afternoon amid the new rally outside the chief executive's office.
The government, meanwhile, has activated a contingency plan designed to cope with the civil disobedience movement. Civil servants were told that the Tamar headquarters would be open only to those who work there. Some meetings were cancelled or postponed.
A government source said: "The chief executive is unlikely to go back to his office tomorrow to work, just to avoid chaos."
In the face of the public pressure on Hong Kong's leader, state media stepped up its rhetoric in support of Leung and condemned the pro-democracy movement as a "blatant violation of the rule of law".
In a rare move, the front page of People's Daily - normally reserved for the coverage of top leaders - published a commentary stressing the central government's "full confidence" in Leung.
The political turmoil in Hong Kong continued to attract international attention, and US President Barack Obama spoke for the first time on the unrest. In a meeting with Foreign Minister Wang Yi , Obama called for the Hong Kong government to exercise restraint and said he hoped for a peaceful resolution.
Wang replied that "no country will tolerate illegal activities that undermine the basis of rule of law. The US will not tolerate such activities just as [China will not allow it] in Hong Kong".
Local political heavyweights tried hard to broker a solution. Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing confirmed he had met the founding chairman of the Democratic Party, Martin Lee Chu-ming, and Next Media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying on Wednesday.
Tsang said their hour-long discussion failed to resolve the deadlock.
The lack of clear leadership among the protesters further complicates the situation.