Embattled Hong Kong chief executive C.Y. Leung on Thursday offered an olive branch to pro-democracy protesters who have occupied stretches of major roads in the downtown area for nearly three weeks, following widespread public anger over a video depicting police beating up a handcuffed demonstrator.
Amid escalating tensions as police once more used pepper spray and batons to clear sections of road blocked by Occupy Central campaigners in the early hours of Thursday, Leung said the government had dispatched unidentified "middlemen" to broker talks.
"As long as students or other sectors in Hong Kong are prepared to focus on this issue, yes we are ready, we are prepared to start the dialogue," Leung told reporters.
Civic Party member Ken Tsang has identified himself as the victim in the video, which went viral after being aired by local broadcaster TVB News.
Seven police officers have since been suspended from duty pending an investigation, while Tsang has filed a writ at the former British colony's High Court.
Senior police superintendent Kong Man-keung said Hong Kong's police chiefs are very concerned about the incident, and will not tolerate any illegal action by officers.
"If any individual officer is suspected of using excessive force, police will seriously investigate the case in a just and impartial manner," Kong told reporters on Thursday.
Protests enter third week
The clashes came as the Occupy Central mass civil disobedience movement entered its third week of campaigning for public nomination of candidates in the territory's planned one-person, one-vote elections for the chief executive in 2017.
Beijing on Aug. 31 ruled out any possibility of public nominations in spite of 700,000 votes in support of the idea in an online referendum in June, saying candidates must be vetted by a committee stacked with its supporters.
Pan-democratic politicians and Occupy campaigners have dismissed Beijing's proposals as "fake universal suffrage," while media linked to the ruling Chinese Communist Party have slammed the protests as illegal and the work of "hostile foreign forces."
Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei hit out at recent comments from U.K. and U.S. officials calling on China to ensure it keeps its promises of a "high degree of autonomy" made ahead of the 1997 handover from British rule.
"Hong Kong's affairs are purely China's internal affairs," Hong told a regular news briefing in Beijing. "No foreign governments or individuals have the right to make indiscreet remarks."
He said protesters had "illegally occupied major traffic ways, resisted police law enforcement, and seriously disturbed social order," since the Occupy movement began on Sept. 28.
But Civic Party lawmaker Alan Leong said recent editorials in party mouthpiece the People's Daily blaming "foreign forces" for the protests were irresponsible.
Government 'must respond'
A few hundred protesters remained at sites in Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok late on Thursday, with dozens making ready to spend the night once more in tents following speeches by student leaders and Ken Tsang.
A student surnamed Fan said that dialogue with the government is absolutely necessary.
"First, the government needs to respond to our demands, to our actions of the last few days, in a reasonable manner," Fan said. "Then there needs to be some response either on public nominations, or on the make-up of the nominating committee."
"Only then will the protesters feel satisfied."
A supporter surnamed Leung said she believes Beijing would be unlikely to make any concessions.
"Of course the best outcome would be genuine universal suffrage," Leung said. "But I think the chances of that are slim, because the attitude of the central government seems to be very hard-line."
"So I don't hold out much hope, but I still support the students," she added.
Room for negotiation?
C.Y. Leung has already said there is "zero chance" that Beijing will change its mind, but said on Thursday that there could be room for negotiation on how the nomination committee itself is selected ahead of a second round of public consultations on the plan.
If the committee is largely composed of Beijing loyalists, the selection of a more liberal or pro-democratic candidate would be highly unlikely, meaning Hong Kong's five million voters will have little real choice, analysts say.
Leung warned that the occupation of key streets near government headquarters in Admiralty and in the shopping districts of Causeway Bay and Kowloon's Mong Kok "cannot go on indefinitely."
"Going forward, we cannot allow the occupying of streets to have a negative impact on Hong Kong society," he said. "Police will use appropriate methods to deal with this problem."
Around 70 percent of respondents to an online poll at the website of the South China Morning Post newspaper said they were unhappy with the police's handling of the protests.
Asked "How would you rate the overall performance of police during the Occupy protests?" 39 percent replied "poor," while 31 percent rated it as "not very good."
Only 16 percent of the 2,227 visitors polled, who may not necessarily be Hong Kong residents, rated the police as "Good" or "Excellent."
Veteran journalist Ching Cheong said Leung's administration could make certain symbolic concessions to help forge a solution.
"For example, he could re-open Civic Square," Ching said, referring to a public area outside government offices that has been cordoned off to prevent people gathering there.
"He could also make a supplementary report to the National People's Congress (NPC) to make good on his promise," he said, referring to Leung's failure to mention the online referendum when reporting to his bosses in Beijing ahead of the NPC's Aug. 31 decision.
"If this is later rejected by the NPC, then at least it won't be the fault of the Hong Kong government."
Meanwhile, veteran democracy activists and lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, known by his nickname "Long Hair," told LegCo that Hong Kong's peaceful "Umbrella Revolution" is far from being a "color revolution" similar to those in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
"We aren't trying to use violence to overthrow the regime," Leung said. "On the contrary, we want to use peaceful methods to demonstrate the violence of the system."
But he said that blocking major highways isn't a good strategy.
"I hereby call openly, although I know a lot of people will have a go at me for it: Don't carry out any more spontaneous road blockages," Leung said.
"It will only give the government and the police an excuse to suppress the protests with violence."
Reported by Lin Jing, Wen Yuqing, Lee Kin-kwan and Pan Jiaqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan and Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.