Talks in Hong Kong between student representatives of a three-week-long mass pro-democracy movement and government officials ended on Tuesday with no sign of an end to the political stalemate or the Occupy Central campaign for universal suffrage.
Four black-clad student leaders faced off on live television with top officials of the semiautonomous Chinese territory led by chief secretary Carrie Lam, watched in near-silence by crowds of protesters behind their barricades on the streets of Admiralty and Mong Kok.
Lam told the students that their demands for public nomination of candidates in the 2017 race for chief executive won't be met.
According to an Aug. 31 ruling by Beijing, Hong Kong's five million voters will each cast a ballot in 2017, but they will only be allowed to choose between candidates selected by a pro-Beijing committee.
Pan-democratic politicians and protesters of the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement have dismissed the reforms as "fake universal suffrage," because they make the selection of a pan-democratic candidate highly unlikely.
Lam said the students' call for public nominations would be unlikely to get through the territory's Legislative Council (LegCo), even if the government agreed to table such a proposal, because it would be voted down by pro-Beijing lawmakers.
But she told the students there is still room to tweak the selection committee, and room for further changes to the electoral system after the 2017 election produces a successor for embattled chief executive Leung Chun-ying.
"There is still ample room under the Aug. 31 decision to work out a nomination procedure and election method for 2017," Lam said in her concluding remarks. "This will be the goal for the second round of public consultation."
She said the 2017 framework "is not final," and invited students to help the government set up a platform for the airing of views on Hong Kong's long-term constitutional development beyond that date.
Lam rejected students' demands that the Hong Kong government refile a report to China's National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee, including widespread calls for universal suffrage from protesters and the 700,000 participants in a June online referendum, which were omitted from a July report.
But she said the government would file a fresh report on the Occupy movement to the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under China's cabinet, the State Council.
"The government is considering how to make a report to central government to reflect people's views," Lam said.
Asked how the report would describe the Occupy movement, which has been dubbed the "umbrella revolution," Lam said the report "won't insert subjective descriptions," and would aim to reflect public opinion.
'Guilty for a thousand years'
Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) deputy leader Lester Shum said students had been demonstrating, missing classes, and risking arrest, for the right to vote for publicly nominated candidates.
"Now all the government can tell us is to pack up and go home," Shum told officials. "This whole generation, awakened by tear gas, cannot accept this."
In a reference to Beijing's furious rhetoric before the 1997 handover slamming the last British colonial governor Chris Patten for his attempt at electoral reforms, Shum asked Lam and her fellow officials: "Can you be responsible? Or will you be the ones that kill our political future and be guilty for a thousand years?"
HKFS leader Alex Chow told the officials that Hong Kong is in a crisis of governance amid waning confidence in its leaders, who are drawn from a powerful group of tycoons favored by Beijing.
"The crisis will not be eased if there is not a democratic system," Chow warned. "Hong Kong people have yet to hear of any solution."
Two of the students called on the government to make amendments to Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, if that would allow full universal suffrage to go ahead.
But Lam echoed a recent policy paper from Beijing, asserting its right to have a final say in Hong Kong's political future.
"Hong Kong is not an independent entity but only a special administrative region and cannot decide its political development by itself," she said.
Chow also referred to comments made to foreign journalists by Leung, who said Hong Kong politics shouldn't be dominated by people on a low income.
"An unequal nominating committee is no good for the wealth gap in Hong Kong," Chow told officials. "Should it continue to serve business conglomerates, or will it continue to deprive the political rights of the one million people living in poverty?"
Leung told overseas journalists on Monday: "If it's entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you'd be talking to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than U.S. $1,800 a month."
He said the election committee that chose him narrowly with a total of just 689 votes in 2012 had been weighted to protect the interests of "minority groups."
A government statement clarifying his comments said the nominating committee would "take its lead" from the way the current 1,200-strong election committee is constituted.
"Within this constitutional and legal framework, 'broadly representative' is not just a question of absolute numbers; it is also a question of taking into account the needs and priorities of a broad range of sectors as much as we can," the statement said.
Meanwhile, several hundred protesters settled down in tents on a blocked highway near government headquarters in Admiralty on Tuesday, in what has become known as "Umbrella Square."
A student protester at Admiralty surnamed Chan said he would continue his protest, because he thought the Hong Kong government is trying to avoid facing up to protesters' demands.
"They never gave a straight answer, all the way through," he said of the dialogue. "They aren't going to accede to our demands. We will definitely continue until we are treated fairly."
A second protester at the scene said she held out little hope of any result, however.
"I don't have much hope," she said. "But I will stay here anyway, and see what the student federation thinks about it."
A protester surnamed Yip said she had watched the entire dialogue live on television from the Occupy site.
"Our demand that they amend their original report [to the NPC] was met with no straight answer," Yip said. "But I thought it was pretty good that we had such an open debate tonight."
"This is the first time they've faced up openly to the people of Hong Kong, and the broadcast could be seen around the whole world," she said, adding that further dialogues in future could go a long way towards resolving tensions.
Chow told a news conference after the dialogue that students would discuss the dialogue among themselves before deciding on their next move.
Reported by Lin Jing, Dai Weisen and Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan and Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service.Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.