HONG KONG - Hong Kong authorities and pro-democracy protest leaders sat down on Tuesday for talks aimed at ending weeks of rallies that have paralysed the city's streets, on the same day the city's leader ruled out democratic reforms.
The crucial talks began just hours after Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying said open elections would result in the largest sector of society - the city's poor - dominating the electoral process, adding that free elections were impossible.
A number of major intersections in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city have been paralysed for more than three weeks by mass rallies demanding free elections, in one of the biggest challenges to Beijing's authority since the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests of 1989.
"I hope this dialogue can calm the relatively tense atmosphere in society," said Chief Secretary Carrie Lam in her opening remarks Tuesday.
"When 5 million eligible voters directly vote for the chief executive through one-person-one-vote, no matter which way you look at it, it is much more democratic than having the leader chosen by a 1,200 strong committee," Lam added.
"The government's direction of development...is not democratic, equal, open and is not an improvement," said Alex Chow, secretary general of Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), one of the student groups leading the protests.
Chow, wearing a black t-shirts with the words "freedom now" and accompanied by four other student leaders, demanded civic nominations for the 2017 chief executive elections.
Leung made a dramatic U-turn last week when he announced a return to talks with the HKFS after abruptly pulling out of discussions a week earlier.
There are fears that these talks will fail as both sides seem unwilling to compromise - potentially setting up further clashes between protesters and police.
Though largely peaceful, the rallies have seen increasing violence in the past week as police tried to clear some of the protest sites.
China has offered Hong Kongers the chance to vote for their next chief executive in 2017. But only those vetted by a committee expected to be loyal to Beijing will be allowed to stand - a proposal activists have labelled a "fake democracy".