HONG KONG — The government in Hong Kong backed out of talks with leaders of the pro-democracy protests Thursday, saying that it would not meet with them after they had called on their supporters to come back to the streets to keep up pressure on the authorities.
That was an unacceptable threat, Hong Kong’s number two official said.
The announcement set the stage for further confrontation between protesters and the government here, and could breathe new life into street protests that had been dwindling steadily this week.
Student leaders immediately responded by redoubling their calls for people to return to the streets Friday evening to put fresh pressure on the government, and, shortly after the government’s announcement, several thousand gathered at the main protest site.
The first round of talks had been scheduled for Friday.
But the appeals to bolster the occupation of the streets during the talks was deemed a deal-killer by the government.
“I am afraid that is making people’s daily lives into a bargaining chip for the meeting,” Hong Kong’s chief secretary, Carrie Lam, told a news conference. “We cannot accept the linking of illegal activities to whether or not to talk.”
She warned that the occupation of the streets must end before meaningful negotiations could begin, and also said the government side is not prepared to discuss the protesters’ basic demand for democracy.
That may be the biggest sticking point — her insistence that students not contest the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling in August setting out its interpretation of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and detailing the rules that would govern the election of the territory’s next chief executive in 2017. Those rules effectively gave Beijing and its loyalists in Hong Kong the power to choose who can be a candidate in those elections.
Protesters want to open up the nominating process and are also demanding the resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
“We have stated again and again that political reform has to be under the Basic Law framework and the recent explanation made by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee,” Lam said.
She said protest leaders had failed to listen to “rational voices” urging them to end their campaign of civil disobedience, adding that the “illegal occupation of the streets must end.”
“We think that the foundation of the talks has been shaken, and we could not have a constructive meeting tomorrow, Lam said.”
Student leaders accused the government of backing out of the talks because it felt the pressure was lessening.
“I feel like the government is saying that if there are fewer people on the streets, they can cancel the meeting,” said Alex Chow, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students. “Students urge people who took part in the civil disobedience to go out on the streets again to occupy.”
Chow accused the government of having been insincere about the dialogue all along.
“We are not asking the government to respond to us by solving all the problems at once,” he said. “They could give some instructions or administrative work to give a blueprint of how all the constitutional reform problems could be settled, but right up to this moment the government has still not given us a concrete proposal to solve the problem.”
Observers said that by failing to take popular discontent seriously, the government had given the students a new rallying cry — just as the police firing tear gas on the protesters last week energized the entire movement.
“I think it’s a big blunder again,” said Michael Davis, a law professor at Hong Kong University. “It was a major move to say they were going to talk to the students — it made people think that maybe there was a little sincerity.”
Sebastian Veg, director of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China, called the government’s decision “terribly irresponsible.”
“I believe there are a range of technical compromises that can be reached between the students and the government, but the government has consistently demonstrated ill will in simply acknowledging the students’ demands,” he said.
But he said he thinks that the students need to devise a new strategy, given the frustration in some quarters with the disruptions to daily life the protests have caused — perhaps retreating to their campuses for a period and setting an ultimatum for the government to offer some meaningful proposals.
“This would highlight the moral bankruptcy of this embattled government and preserve the students’ moral high ground,” he said. “When the government acts like children, the students are called upon to act like the only adults in the room — as they have done so far.”
The atmosphere at the main protest venue — nicknamed “Umbrella Square” by protest leaders — was very relaxed around midnight Thursday, with schoolchildren getting help with their homework, an artist making yellow umbrella shapes out of balloons, a few people singing or doing yoga, some sleeping and many, like 25-year-old twins Hattie and Wendy Lam, just sitting around chatting with friends.
“It’s very chilled,” said Hattie, 25, a quantity surveyor. “Every day I see something new here.”
The Lam sisters called the government’s decision to cancel the talks “lame” and “cowardly” and ultimately unwise. “For sure, people will get tired, but if the government keeps doing things like this, it will provoke more people to come out,” said Wendy, an account executive for a company that sells watches.
Responding to criticism that the prolonged sit-in has disrupted the city and is costing the movement popular support, leaders said students were fanning out through the city trying to explain to people that they had to accept some short-term disruption to traffic in order to achieve their long-term goal of democracy.