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.
STREETS CALM AFTER WEEKEND CLASHES
Hong Kong's streets have been calm after dozens of people were injured in two nights of clashes over the weekend in the Mong Kok shopping district, including 22 police.
Besides Mong Kok, where demonstrators remain, about 1,000 protesters are camped out at the headquarters of the civil disobedience "Occupy" movement on Hong Kong Island in a sea of tents on an eight-lane highway beneath skyscrapers close to government headquarters.
"So far we've seen no hope that they will reach some agreement in the coming week because both sides have different expectations of the dialogue," said James Sung, a political analyst at City University of Hong Kong.
The government may have some wiggle room in determining how the committee that selects candidates for Hong Kong's leadership election is picked, Sung added.
Hong Kong is ruled under a "one country, two systems" formula that allows it wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms and specifies universal suffrage as an eventual goal. But Beijing is wary about copycat demands for reform on the mainland.
Leung told the foreign newspapers that Hong Kong had been "lucky" that Beijing had not yet felt the need to intervene in the stand-off.
The Hong Kong leader appears hamstrung, unable to compromise because of the message that would send to Chinese on the mainland, while using more force would likely only galvanize the protests.