HONG KONG (AFP) – Hong Kong’s embattled leader made a dramatic u-turn Thursday reopening his offer of talks with student protesters a week after the government abruptly pulled out of discussions aimed at ending more than a fortnight of mass democracy rallies.
The offer by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying came a day after video footage of plainclothes officers beating a handcuffed demonstrator as he lay on the ground sparked widespread anger.
“Over the last few days… we expressed a wish to the students that we would like to start a dialogue to discuss universal suffrage as soon as we can and hopefully within the following week,” Leung told reporters.
But question marks remain other whether fresh talks can make any substantive headway in the stalemate between the government and protesters.
Leung warned that Beijing had no intention of rescinding its insistence that his successor be vetted by a loyalist committee before standing for election in 2017 – a core demand of protesters.
“Politics is the art of the possible and we have to draw a line between possibilities and impossibilities,” he said.
The Asian financial hub has been rocked by mass rallies for nearly three weeks calling both for full democracy and Leung’s resignation.
Ongoing sit-ins at three major intersections have caused significant disruption to a city usually known for its stability.
Protesters have called Beijing’s proposal a “fake democracy” and have vowed to remain on the streets until their demands are met despite growing impatience among some Hong Kongers and attacks by pro-government thugs.
City authorities abruptly pulled out of talks with the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) – one of the groups leading the protests – last Thursday plunging the city into a political stalemate it shows little sign of emerging from.
The offer of new talks came after a two day spike in violence between police and protesters as they battled over a series of barricades near the government’s besieged headquarters.
Tensions soared after the video showing police beating a handcuffed activist went viral Wednesday, with protesters saying they had lost all faith in the police despite the accused officers being “removed” – but not suspended – from current duties.
Leung refused to be drawn on the allegations against the officers, stating: “We should not politicise this incident.”
The incident has become another public relations disaster for the police who were severely criticised for firing tear gas on umbrella-wielding protesters on September 28 in a move that attracted worldwide attention.
“It is stomach-churning to think there are Hong Kong police officers that feel they are above the law,” Mabel Au, director of Amnesty Hong Kong, said in a statement.
The United States also called for a “swift, transparent and complete” investigation adding it was “deeply concerned” by the reports of police brutality.
Leung also refused Thursday to rule out further barricade clearances by police that led to the recent uptick in clashes with protesters after two weeks of comparative calm.
“We cannot allow the negative affect on Hong Kong to continue because of the blockage of these streets. Police will use appropriate methods at the appropriate time to handle this problem,” he said.