BEIJING — From the start, one of Hong Kong’s most closely watched political debates in nearly a generation took on a unique, bizarre quality.
On one side were five of Hong Kong’s most powerful government leaders in business attire. On the other were five college students in jeans and black T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Freedom Now!”
And watching the live broadcast on projectors and phones, hordes of pro-democracy protesters on the streets jeered, cheered and guffawed at each exchange — much like a frenzied crowd at a sports bar on game night.
After more than three weeks of paralyzing demonstrations for electoral reform, Hong Kong’s political showdown shifted Tuesday from the streets to a drab university hall as pro-democracy student leaders faced off with government officials in a prime-time debate marked by sweeping discourse but few concessions from either side.
The two-hour session — by turns riveting, wildly philosophical and dense with legalese — came as a breather for a city reeling from protests that have turned some of the world’s most expensive real estate into arenas of violent clashes.
The debate was closely watched, each phrase and inflection parsed for nuance and subtext.
But the exchange only accentuated the gulf between the two sides, with the government refusing any electoral changes, and students arguing for democratic rights but not offering any workable compromise.
It felt surreal at times that after weeks of tumult, the future of this city could turn on what was essentially a high-school-style debate between two unlikely teams.
The students pressed with detailed arguments on law and procedure, as well as impassioned appeals to the conscience and speeches about the nature of democracy.
“Some say we students were chosen by fate,” Lester Shum told the government leaders. “But you officials were also chosen. . . . Will you go down in history as the ones who deprived Hong Kong of democracy?”
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s second-highest-ranking official, acknowledged that the protests had been on a “massive scale with far-reaching implications” but chastised the students for what she characterized as their unrealistic idealism.
At the heart of the standoff is the protesters’ demand that Hong Kong residents be allowed to choose their leaders rather than having their candidates vetted by China’s Communist Party leaders.
The five student representatives followed a clear strategy, divvying up their debate duties and ticking off their grievances one by one. First came an overview by one debater, then an attack by another on the legality of Beijing’s election rules.
Hong Kong representatives responded gamely, trying to avoid any appearance of bullying. But their tone was occasionally patronizing as they praised the students for doing their homework on constitutional law and invoked their own days at their alma maters.
Making the government’s only real concession of the night, Lam said Hong Kong’s leaders would be willing to send a supplemental report to Beijing outlining the views that had emerged from the protests. An earlier “public opinion” report that the Hong Kong government submitted to Beijing voiced support for the election vetting.
For weeks, protesters had been agitating for such a supplemental report, hoping it could lay the groundwork for electoral reform. After the debate, student leaders expressed frustration at Lam’s vagueness about how the report would be prepared. It was unclear, they said, what effect such a report would have.
Government representatives called the debate a positive step, and said they had listened with patience and even admiration to the students’ arguments.
The students, however, called it a disappointment and urged demonstrators to continue their protests at all costs.
In mainland China — where censors have worked overtime to limit coverage for fear that the pro-democracy protests could prove contagious — some state-run media outlets reported the talks in real time, but they mostly focused on arguments from the government team, not the students.
Ahead of the debate, anticipation ran high, even though many on both sides expressed doubts about whether it could resolve the impasse.
Hong Kong media reported that the five students chosen for the debate had holed up for cram sessions with an impressive roster of elder democratic statesmen, including Hong Kong’s former justice secretary.
The debate also was a chance for the protesters to try to win over residents who have been uneasy about the students’ blockades of streets in the normally efficient and highly organized city.
Dozens have been injured in sporadic clashes between police, who have used batons and pepper spray, and students often armed only with umbrellas, which have become a symbol of the pro-democracy movement.
The student-led protesters have held their ground despite recent police attempts to disperse them by force.
“I don’t know what to do next,” said Cheung Lap-kan, 25, a food wholesaler, who had been showing up at the protest for days. “The government is not giving in on anything.”
“The meeting didn’t help at all,” said Ho Yick-nga, 26, a clerk. Like many watching the broadcast at the main protest site Tuesday night, she vowed to remain in the streets.
But Alice Man Oi-Yee, 37, a social worker supportive of the protests, said she considered the debate a defining moment regardless of whether the students managed to extract concessions from Beijing.
“Looking back five to 10 years from now, no matter if this is successful or not, I think this is an important milestone for Hong Kong,” she said. She said she can imagine telling her children about the wild, unpredictable days of protest that their mother was part of. “I think this is very valuable.”
Murphy reported from Washington. Kris Cheng in Hong Kong and Xu Yangjingjing in Beijing contributed to this report.