Updated at 3:40 p.m. on 2014-10-09
The Hong Kong government on Thursday called off scheduled talks with pro-democracy student leaders aimed at ending nearly two weeks of a mass civil disobedience campaign calling for universal suffrage, and told protesters to clear the streets.
Hong Kong chief secretary Carrie Lam said student leaders' calls to step up protests if they did not win concessions at the talks planned for Friday had damaged trust in the basis for the meeting.
"The basis for constructive dialogue has been undermined," Lam, second-in-command to chief executive C.Y. Leung, told reporters. "It's not possible to have a constructive dialogue tomorrow."
Lam, who was to have led the talks on the government side, instead called for an end to the "illegal occupation" of the city's streets by student and civil campaigners loosely grouped under the banner "Occupy Central."
Asked if police would now move to clear sites in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok of protesters, Lam said the government was closely monitoring the situation.
"We will take appropriate action at the appropriate time," she said, adding that the government had noted a "downward trend" in the numbers turning out to support the Occupy movement, now in its 12th day.
Lam once more warned that there would be no going back on an Aug. 31 edict from China's rubber stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), which ruled that candidates in 2017 elections for the chief executive must be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee.
The government had wanted the talks to focus on "the basis for political development and the legal implementation" of the election reforms. Student leaders felt the talks were limited in scope, and didn't allow for discussion of their core demand.
Occupy leaders responded to Lam's announcement by calling for the movement, which has blocked highways in at least three busy downtown areas of the city as well as government headquarters since Sept. 28, to continue.
"Without a just explanation and concrete ideas of how to settle the current dispute, Hong Kong people will not retreat," Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) leader Alex Chow told a joint news conference in response to the announcement.
He said the students had hoped for a genuine dialogue with the government, but rejected Lam's accusation that students had tried to swell the protests ahead of the talks.
"I don't believe we made a wrong move," Chow said. "Civil disobedience was the only method we had for forcing a concession from the government."
"The government is just making excuses," he said.
In an earlier interview with RFA, Chow said protesters were used to threats of police action, and had made "mental preparation" before taking to the streets.
"The Occupy movement must be ongoing," Chow said, suggesting that protesters might extend their protests. "The students will go into different occupy areas," he said.
But he said the aim of the protests isn't to overthrow the government.
"The point is ... to reform the political system," he said. "It's up to the government to come up with a set of proposals to end this situation."
Some 5,000 protesters gathered in Admiralty late on Thursday to listen to speeches from student leaders calling for the movement to continue.
An Occupy supporter at the Admiralty protest surnamed Chan said he believed no political change is possible in the absence of continued protests.
"I support [Occupy Central], because the government won't make changes without it," Chan said. "Right from the start, the students have been doing this for the good of everyone."
But he said many Hong Kong residents are growing tired of the ongoing disruption to their daily lives.
"I think that when the government makes a concession, that will be the right time to leave," Chan said.
Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai said the protests would likely swell in response to the government's decision to cancel talks.
Joshua Wong, leader of the academic activist group Scholarism, had earlier also called on protesters to stay on the streets to continue to pressure the government to modify Beijing's plans for the 2017 elections.
An office worker surnamed Wong said the situation appears to have reached an impasse.
"I don't think ... the government is very sincere," Wong said, in an interview recorded before the talks were cancelled.
But she said most protesters would make up their own minds about whether to continue.
"This has never been a movement led by any particular individuals, and I think people can exercise their own judgement about whether to stay or go," Wong said. "This is an expression of public opinion, and if people stay, then the government will need to hold more talks with us."
Mong Kok protesters
Across the harbor in Mong Kok, scene of violent clashes between Occupy and anti-Occupy protesters last week, some student protesters remained in possession of a makeshift tent at a busy intersection.
Sporadic verbal confrontations between unidentified passers-by and protesters continued.
"What do seven million Hong Kong people count for?" one man shouted at protesters in Mong Kok in mainland-accented Cantonese. "You would drown if we all spat at you."
He added: "You are clueless, with no social responsibility; may your families all drop dead!"
The student protesters replied by singing "Happy Birthday" to the man.
Meanwhile, pan-democratic legislators said they are planning their own civil disobedience campaign inside the chamber of the territory's Legislative Council (LegCo), government broadcaster RTHK reported.
The cancellation of the talks came as pressure mounted on Hong Kong's embattled chief executive C.Y. Leung following a report alleging that he failed to disclose a U.S. $6.5 million payout from an Australian company, prompting opposition lawmakers to consider impeachment proceedings against him.
Beijing-backed Leung, who has been facing calls to resign over his handling of pro-democracy protests, "pocketed millions in secret fees from a listed Australian company in return for supporting its Asian business ambitions," Fairfax Media, which owns the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers, reported following its own investigation.
The paper cited a "secret contract" between Leung and Australian engineering company UGL, signed and dated Dec. 2, 2011, three months before Leung was chosen by a 1,200-strong pro-Beijing election committee in March 2012 by a margin of just 89 votes.
While there was nothing apparently illegal about the contract itself, Leung didn't disclose it during his election campaign, the paper said.
Hong Kong's Justice Department on Thursday handed an investigation report of the business payout to prosecutors.
Part of the brief includes "considering and deciding whether prosecution action is warranted" against Leung, who has refused to stand down in recent weeks over protesters' calls for Beijing to keep its promise of universal suffrage, Reuters news agency reported.
The department said its decision was aimed at avoiding "any possible perception of bias, partiality or improper influence."
Hong Kong current affairs commentator Camoes Tam said the investigation is unlikely to have much impact on the outcome of the Occupy movement, but Leung's political career is likely over.
"The central government has made it very clear that Leung has no way of resolving the problem, so the task of dealing peacefully with the Occupy movement has been given to Carrie Lam," Tam said.
"C.Y. Leung is effectively a lame duck chief executive right now," he said. "They just want to make sure he doesn't go off message."
Beijing's ruling Chinese Communist Party leaders have ruled Hong Kong since the 1997 handover using the "one country, two systems" formula, which allows wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed by cities on the mainland.
While the territory's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, specifies universal suffrage as an eventual goal, Beijing's interpretation is at odds with that of pan-democratic politicians and democracy campaigners, who have dismissed it as "fake universal suffrage."
Across the border in China, the authorities have detained more than 40 activists who showed public support for the Hong Kong protesters, rights groups said on Thursday.
The overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group, which translates and collates reports from rights groups inside China, said it has documented more than 40 detentions in total, including 11 criminal detentions and two administrative detentions.
A total of 31 individuals remain in police custody and at least three have gone into hiding, the group said in an emailed statement.
"Police have harassed and intimidated countless others by visiting their homes and issuing warnings or taking them to police stations for questioning," it said.
It called on the Chinese government to "immediately release the detained individuals and respect their constitutional rights and right to freedom of expression."
Among those criminally detained is a group of 10 artists from the Songzhuang artists' village in Beijing and a journalist covering their poetry reading in support of Occupy Central, it said.
All but one are being held at the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center, and seven are being held on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," it said.
Reported by Pan Jiaqing, Lau Won, Wen Yuqing and Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long and Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.