HONG KONG: Hong Kong's embattled leader refused demands by pro-democracy protesters to resign Thursday, and instead offered talks to defuse a week of massive demonstrations that have grown into the biggest challenge to Beijing's authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students said in a statement early Friday that they planned to join the talks with the government, focused specifically on political reforms. They reiterated that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying step down, saying he "had lost his integrity."
A wider pro-democracy group that had joined the demonstrations, Occupy Central, welcomed the talks and also insisted that Leung quit.
Occupy Central "hopes the talks can provide a turning point in the current political stalemate," it said in a statement. "However, we reiterate our view that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is the one responsible for the stalemate, and that he must step down."
Leung's comments came at a news conference held just minutes before the protesters' midnight deadline for him to quit.
"I will not resign," he said.
The students had threatened to surround or occupy government buildings if Leung did not step down, and the police had warned of serious consequences if the protesters carried out that threat.
Standing beside Leung was the territory's top civil servant, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, and he asked her to arrange the talks. She said she would seek to meet with leaders of the demonstrations as soon as possible.
"I hope both sides will be satisfied," she said. "Students had wanted a public meeting but I hope that we can have some flexibility to discuss details."
The protesters want Beijing to reverse its decision that all candidates in an inaugural 2017 election for chief executive must be approved by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing elites. They say China is reneging on its promise that the city's top leader will be chosen through "universal suffrage."
Leung said the authorities would continue to tolerate the protests as long as participants did not charge police lines, but urged them to stop their occupation of much of the downtown area.
"I urge students not to charge into or occupy government buildings. ... It's not about my personal inconvenience," he said. "These few days the protesters' occupation of key areas of the city has already seriously affected Hong Kong's economy, people's daily lives and government functioning."
Before Leung spoke, the heads of two major universities whose students joined in launching the protests appeared before a jittery crowd in front of the entrance to his office and appealed for calm.
Earlier Thursday, police were seen bringing in supplies of tear gas and other riot gear, and the protesters prepared face masks and goggles as tensions rose in the standoff outside the imposing government compound near the waterfront.
After Leung's news conference, however, the atmosphere was palpably calmer, although many protesters expressed disappointment about the proposed talks.
"They didn't mention anything about when they are going to talk, no details, nothing," said Joanna Wong, 28, who works in the aviation industry. Wong said she would stay at the protest site to see how the student groups react to the announcement.
Marketing professional Heiman Chan, 25, said the talks should begin right away.
"If we need to wait two or three days, the crowd will become smaller and there will be fewer people to support this movement," she said. "That's why the government just keeps us waiting."
The People's Daily, published by China's ruling Communist Party, warned in a commentary Thursday of "chaos" in the city of 7 million and expressed strong support for Leung.
It said the central government firmly backed the Hong Kong police — who were criticized for using tear gas against protesters last weekend — "to handle illegal activities in accordance with the law."
Ivy Chan, a 25-year-old social worker, said she hoped the proposed talks would yield results and that tear gas wouldn't be used again.
"What we want to fight for is our freedom, and the free nomination of candidates for our chief executive," she said.