The Hong Kong government canceled talks with pro-democracy protesters who have blockaded key city roads for nearly two weeks after leaders of the movement called supporters back into the streets.
The occupation by protesters, who are upset with a proposal for choosing the city’s top leader, is illegal and must end, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s No. 2 official, told reporters. Yesterday’s call by protest leaders for more rallies made it “impossible” to begin negotiations today as planned, she said.
“We can’t accept that some people are linking this dialogue to whether to continue the illegal occupation,” Lam said. “I’m afraid this is using the welfare of the people as a bargaining chip.”
The blockades by students seeking direct elections free from limits set by China’s central government have forced the former British colony into its worst political crisis since China regained sovereignty in 1997. The impasse threatens to leave traffic snarled in some of the financial center’s busiest districts, with student protesters warning that the government may use violence to clear the streets.
The benchmark Hang Seng Index (HSI) closed 1.2 percent higher yesterday, before Lam postponed the talks. The index had its biggest two-day fall since February last week after the police used tear gas on unarmed student demonstrators, spurring thousands to rally in anger.
The number of demonstrators at three camps, including outside the government headquarters in Admiralty, has dropped to the hundreds from a peak of about 200,000 people, as weary protesters return to work and school. Lam said the dwindling crowds show that some of those on the streets “may feel their occupation has caused a major inconvenience and disturbance to society.”
Earlier, leaders of the pro-democracy protests issued the rallying call to bolster their thinning ranks and pressure the government into meeting their demands for free elections in 2017. China’s decision on Aug. 31 for all candidates for the city’s top office to be vetted by a committee was the flash point for the protests, with lawmakers and the students saying the move will stymie their choice.
Hong Kong Federation of Students secretary general Alex Chow speaks during a news conference outside the Central Government Offices in Hong Kong, China, on Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014.
“I am disappointed. The government’s reason for canceling the dialogue is weak,” said Chiu Shing-Chung, 26, as he joined other protesters sitting on a main road at Admiralty yesterday. “People might be tired and they might go home but the problems are still there.”
The suspension of the talks is disappointing and shows a lack of sincerity by the government, the Hong Kong Federation of Students said in a statement on its Facebook page.
“The government has rejected our demands with such a ridiculous excuse and it has closed the door to solving the issue through dialogue,” Alex Chow, the secretary general of the federation, told reporters yesterday. “We can’t see the government as having the heart and sincerity to respond to the democratic demands from Hong Kong people.”
Protesters need to be prepared for violent measures from the government to clear the streets, he said.
The student leaders are considering possible actions including a call to surround government offices again, he said. People should rally at Admiralty today starting at 7:30 p.m., Scholarism, a student group, said on its Facebook page.
Crowds at the main protest area in the Admiralty district swelled yesterday evening after the news that the government had decided to call off the dialogue. Student leaders including Chow and his deputy Lester Shum, speaking from a makeshift stage, asked people to come back to the streets this weekend to put pressure on the government.
The talks were agreed to on Oct. 2, minutes before the expiration of a deadline the student leaders had set for the resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Both sides have been unable to agree on the agenda, with the government insisting that the basis of negotiations must be based on China’s proposal for Hong Kong’s 2017 leadership contest.
Student leaders have rejected the plan, saying it ignores the demand for democracy.
“They are making their voices heard at the expense of the public to carry on with their normal daily lives,” Police Chief Superintendent Hui Chun-tak told reporters yesterday. “The road blockade has increased the tensions between protesters and the local community.”
Hong Kong's embattled leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, right, and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam hold a press conference at Leung's official residence in Hong Kong on October 2, 2014.
Some protesters have laid down beds and mattresses in makeshift shelters in Mong Kok, one of the rally sites, which may increase the risks of confrontation, Hui said. About 40 percent of bus routes in the city were affected on Oct. 8 by the road blocks, with traffic congestion starting as early as 7 a.m., the government said.
“The government still has utmost patience to persuade the protesters to leave the areas and reopen the roads to the public,” said Lam, when asked whether the demonstrators would be forcibly removed. “Of course, we’ll monitor the situation daily and take appropriate action when necessary.”