HONG KONG - Senior Hong Kong government officials will meet student leaders for the first time on Tuesday in an attempt to defuse more than three weeks of pro-democracy protests which have brought parts of the Asian financial centre to a standstill.
Hopes are low for any breakthrough during the evening talks, which will be broadcast live, with both sides refusing to give ground in resolving the worst political crisis in the former British colony since it was handed back to China in 1997.
Protesters are calling for free elections when Hong Kong chooses its next leader in 2017, but China insists on screening candidates first. Beijing believes it has offered enough concessions to Hong Kong in the past and will give no ground to pro-democracy protests, sources say.
In blunt remarks that could inflame students ahead of the talks, Hong Kong's Beijing-backed leader, Leung Chun-ying, told some foreign media on Monday that free elections were unacceptable partly because they risked giving Hong Kong's poor and working class a dominant voice in politics.
Student demands for direct input from the public on candidates were impossible, said Leung, a property services executive before being appointed Hong Kong's leader in 2012.
"If it's entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 (S$2,286) a month," Leung told the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
"Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies," added Leung, warning of the dangers of populism and insisting that the electoral system needed to protect minority groups.
Critics say the political system already favors the rich in Hong Kong, which has one of the biggest wealth gaps in Asia and where the vast majority of people cannot afford their own home.
In August, Beijing offered Hong Kong people the chance to vote for their own leader in 2017, but said only two to three candidates could run after getting backing from a 1,200-person nominating committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
The protesters decry this as "fake" Chinese-style democracy and say they won't leave the streets unless Beijing allows open nominations.
The talks between student representatives and senior city government officials may yield small confidence-building measures and an agreement to continue the dialogue, but are unlikely to bridge the chasm between the two sides or end the demonstrations, experts said.
Leung will not take part. Instead, he will send five envoys including Hong Kong's number two official, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam. The talks are being broadcast live at the insistence of student leaders to make public the debate on democracy.
"This is an historic moment because it's the first time ever in Hong Kong that a group of protesters are able to sit on an equal footing with the government, to say: 'we don't agree with you, we want democracy'," said Nathan Law, a member of the Hong Kong Federation of Students.
Giant screens will be set up in protest zones to beam the talks live to demonstrators.
The government cancelled talks scheduled for earlier this month after the students called for the protests to expand.