HONG KONG — Staring down the student demonstrators who had demanded he resign by the end of the day Thursday, Hong Kong’s chief executive told a late-night news conference that his government was willing to talk with the protesters, but that he had no intention of quitting.
It was a tough signal, reflecting Beijing’s unyielding stance in the face of pro-democracy protests that have roiled Hong Kong all week, but the promise to hold talks, however limited they might be in scope, appeared to be enough to blunt the protest leaders’ determination to act.
The protesters had threatened to occupy government buildings if Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying refused to step down by midnight, but by early Friday, in the face of disagreement among themselves and a show of force by police, they had refrained from escalating the conflict.
In a minor but perhaps telling incident, rifts among protesters carried over into early Friday as they scuffled over a plan to block traffic on one of the only main roads still connecting Hong Kong’s Central district, a key business hub, to areas further east on the island.
Tensions had been building all day and into the evening Thursday, as China made it clear that it would not compromise. In Beijing, the People’s Daily newspaper warned against “chaos” in Hong Kong, and, as the official mouthpiece of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, it offered a full endorsement of Leung.
Beijing’s uncompromising stance is driven in part by fears that successful protests in Hong Kong could inspire dissent to bubble up elsewhere in China.
“Beijing is not going to lose,” Jeff Bader, the former top White House official for East Asia, said in an interview. “They’re just not willing to, and they have the power to make that stick.”
The police, in what may have been an attempt at intimidation, brought in riot gear and vowed to stop any attempt to occupy buildings. Shortly before dusk, a swarm of officers pushed their way through crowds to the besieged government headquarters at the heart of Hong Kong’s protest. Anger and fear rippled through the crowds as they realized that police were transporting what appeared to be boxes of rubber bullets and tear gas.
Yet the reaction may not have been what the authorities anticipated.
As word spread online of a possible crackdown, jam-packed crowds returned by the hundreds to the protest site, where attendance had been waning over the past day. Many began donning goggles and masks in case police deployed tear gas as they had earlier this week. Volunteers rushed in trolleys full of water, food, umbrellas and masks.
Nonetheless, student organizers started backing down from their threat to occupy more buildings, telling the crowd to avoid provoking police action.
But by that point, in any case, what had begun as outrage against plans by Chinese authorities to vet Hong Kong election candidates had broadened into a collision of two sharply differing visions for the former British colony.
Protesters say they want the semi-autonomous status China promised residents when it took over Hong Kong in 1997. Leaders in Beijing have made clear that they will not give up their grip on Hong Kong’s leaders and the way they are chosen.
Leung’s 11th-hour declaration, with the promise of talks, eased the tension, and there was no confrontation.
At the news briefing, Leung said, “I will not resign because I have to continue my work on electoral reform.”
He announced that he was sending Carrie Lam, his government’s second-highest-ranking official, to talk with students about constitutional reform. But he also said that there would be no compromise on Beijing’s recently announced election rules, which essentially give China’s leaders the power to choose all candidates in the 2017 election.
Changing those rules, however, is the whole point of the protests.
“All he’s doing is trying to buy time,” said C.K. Wong, 22, a student protester who has spent the past week occupying streets east of the protest site. “No one is fooled by his proposed meeting.”
Students also called for the meeting to be open to the public — a detail the government said Thursday still needs to be negotiated.
Time is on Leung’s side. As the demonstrations have dragged on, increasing signs of dissension have emerged among protesters. Not all protesters agreed with the threat by some to occupy more buildings.
Some still insist that Leung must resign. Others argue that Beijing would replace him with another puppet leader and that the protest should focus on electoral reforms.
Signaling China’s intractable stance, the People’s Daily published an editorial Tuesday calling the demonstrations illegal and said ominously that if they continue, the “consequences will be unimaginable.”
It followed up Thursday with a front-page editorial that said the protesters were not engaged in communication but rather “confrontation.”
One key concern for authorities — and one likely reason they mobilized anti-riot gear — is the fear that protesters might block access to government buildings Friday, when most of Hong Kong returns to work after a two-day holiday.
As protesters settled into their makeshift sleeping areas early Friday, it was unclear even to them how long the protests might last. Among their ranks, those in high school had classes starting back up Friday. Others had jobs and college classes to maintain.
“You may see fewer and fewer of us over the next few days,” said Smith Liu, 22, as he secured water supplies near the edge of the protest site. “But there are also many hardcore protesters who I know will stay until the very end. As long as they are here, this will continue.”
Xu Jing in Beijing contributed to this report.