Hong Kong’s leader said Thursday that he is ready to start talks with pro-
democracy demonstrators as early as next week, even as he ruled out any concessions to the protesters.

Student activists leading the protests — which are a showdown over Beijing’s control of political affairs and freedoms in the former British colony — said they were prepared to talk, but political analysts said Chief Executiv e Leung Chun-ying had effectively offered dialogue with one hand while closing the door to compromise with the other.

“Over the last few days, including this morning through third parties, we expressed a wish to the students to start the dialogue to discuss universal suffrage,”
Leung told reporters, referring to a key point of contention: the process for electing his successor in 2017.

But Leung continued to reject any attempt to overturn — or even challenge — the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling in August that provoked the protests.

China said that the election would be open to all voters for the first time in Hong Kong’s history but that the choices on the ballot would be limited to those approved by Beijing. Among the qualifications: The candidates must “love China.”

Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, announced at a news conference Thursday that the government is ready to begin discussing universal suffrage with student activists. (Hong Kong Government Information Services Department/YouTube)

“Politics is the art of the possible, and let me draw a line between the possible and the impossible,” Leung said, spelling out that questioning Beijing’s decision was not an option. “The central authority has said clearly that it will not retract the decision.”

“The most constructive thing the Hong Kong government can offer the students is sit down and listen to the students about what we can do together within the framework” of Beijing’s election rules, he said.

Last week, the government canceled planned talks after student leaders called for a rally at the main protest site to coincide with the dialogue. Leung’s latest proposal may offer little room to ease the three-week-old standoff.

“All the protests would be for nothing, pretty much, if they can’t discuss the very thing they are protesting about,” said Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.

“We can’t even raise questions to the Beijing government?” he added. “What kind of autonomy is that?”

Hong Kong was offered a “high degree of autonomy” by China in the 1997 handover by the British. But critics say that China is chipping away at the promise and that Leung is doing next to nothing to stop it.

With the nominating committee for the 2017 ballot stacked with Beijing-friendly figures, it would be almost impossible for a pro-democracy candidate to win nomination. Students want the public to have the right to nominate candidates, but Leung says that would contravene Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, or the Basic Law.

Constitutional experts have proposed several compromises, including giving people the right to directly elect the nominating committee. But Leung has made it clear that none of the alternatives can be explored.

Another issue is a “public opinion” report that the Hong Kong government submitted to Beijing in July. The document supported China’s rules for the election vetting.

Protesters say the report grossly underplayed popular demands for genuine democracy, and they have asked the government to consider submitting a supplementary report to Beijing explaining the opposition.

Leung said the views of the people of Hong Kong had already been communicated to Beijing “very clearly.”

Throughout the crisis, critics have accused Leung and his officials of sounding more like envoys for Beijing than representatives of the people of Hong Kong.

“That is exactly the heart of the problem,” Davis said. “That is why people here want genuine democracy — not that they want to confront Beijing, but they want a government that represents Hong Kong’s interests to Beijing.”

Leung suggested that students focus not just on the 2017 election, but also on lobbying for change in the electoral system in subsequent elections.

“There are many years ahead for our young students,” added Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs. “In the fullness of time; they should not just put all their focus on 2017. Maybe many of their aspirations can be addressed in future years as well.”

Tensions between the two sides have increased in recent days. On Wednesday morning, police used pepper spray during clashes with demonstrators and arrested 45 of them.

Outrage also rose after a video, which went viral on the Internet, appeared to show police leading a handcuffed protester around a dark corner, forcing him to the ground and repeatedly kicking him. Police said the seven officers involved had been suspended.

This week police have been clearing barricades from major roads around the protest sites to reduce traffic congestion in Asia’s premier financial center. Protesters have responded by trying to erect new ones.

Scuffles broke out again early Thursday, with two more people arrested and the further use of pepper spray by police.

The mass demonstrations, which have clogged highways and encircled government buildings, are the biggest challenge to China’s authority over the former British colony since 1997.

Leung said efforts to clear more streets and “restore order” would continue — even while any talks take place.

Meanwhile, in an overlap of business and unrest, China’s biggest exporter of umbrellas — a symbol of the protests — has filed for an initial public offering in Hong Kong as it seeks to build a new factory and expand its output, the Reuters news agency reported.

The pro-democracy protests have been dubbed the “umbrella revolution” after demonstrators used umbrellas as shields against pepper spray. Jicheng Umbrella Holdings did not disclose the size of the planned deal.

Daniela Deane in London and Kris Cheng Lok-chit in Hong Kong contributed to this report.