HONG KONG -- Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying signaled Thursday a willingness to talk with pro-democracy protesters, but emphasized that he will not resign from office.
In a late-night news conference, Leung announced that Carrie Lam -- the No. 2 in his government -- will engage in discussions with student organizations and other movement leaders. While allowing the demonstrations to continue, he called on protesters to respect police lines. He also emphasized that he will not step down as demanded.
A student organization had released an open letter earlier in the evening, requesting to talk with Lam about election reforms. The framework endorsed by the Chinese government -- the trigger for the protests -- will require candidates running in Hong Kong's next election for chief executive to get prior approval from a pro-Beijing committee. The letter stated that Leung had already lost the people's trust, and is no longer qualified to be the top executive.
"Leung, resign!" the crowd shouted as protests in Hong Kong reached their fifth night on Thursday. The demonstrations have now spread to main government buildings, and the Hong Kong police reported that protesters "have already surrounded (the Office of the Chief Executive) and the Central Government Complex."
"Leung hasn't engaged in any dialogue with the students or apologized for using tear gas," said a 21-year-old student. "He should resign immediately."
A police spokesperson said the police has a responsibility to secure government buildings, especially as people go back to work on Friday after a two-day holiday, and did not rule out the use of tear gas or other force to remove protesters should they block entry into these buildings. They were seen moving tear gas and rubber bullets into the chief executive's office.
Leung was elected in 2012 with the backing of the Chinese government. He has called on Hong Kong residents to accept China's decision concerning the 2017 elections, which effectively bars candidates not backed by the Communist Party from running. This has aroused deep discontent among the public, who largely see him as Beijing's puppet.
The pro-democracy camp is demanding that China take back the decision, which is highly unlikely. Many see the resignation of Leung as a potential middle ground.
But Beijing has stood firmly by Leung throughout the incident. A Thursday opinion piece in the Communist Party-run People's Daily said that the Chinese central government places deep trust in the chief executive.
Jasper Tsang, president of Hong Kong's legislative council, told reporters that he did not see any possibility of Leung stepping down, noting that the Chinese government would not allow such a resignation based on the crowd's demands.
Some 47% of bus routes have stopped running due to the protests, affecting 1.5 million people, according to reports by the Hong Kong government released Thursday afternoon. Elementary and middle schools in the center of Hong Kong island announced they will cancel class on Friday.
A wide gap still exists between the protesters' demands and what the Hong Kong government seemingly can accommodate. It remains unclear whether these talks could bring the demonstrations to an end.