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Hong Kong head offers talks to protesters, but election rules are off limits

Hong Kong’s besieged chief executive said Thursday that he wants to start talks with pro-democracy protesters next week – an olive branch, but one unlikely to stem anger over a video Wednesday that showed police beating an unarmed man.

Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, also known as Leung Chun-ying, said intermediaries have been in touch with student leaders and others to convey the government wishes in hopes of ending street occupations that started nearly three weeks ago.

“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 a televised news conference.

Leung, however, said the talks could not involve asking Beijing to revisit its elections rules, a decision that sparked Hong Kong’s protests nearly three weeks ago. Both protest leaders and rank-and-file protesters doubted that Leung, whose resignation they have sought, will engage in serious negotiations.

“Maybe it is real today, but it may not be real tomorrow,” said Isis Lam, 17, one of hundreds of demonstrators occupying a major thoroughfare near the Hong Kong government office. “I don’t trust the government to keep its promises.”

Lam and other protesters said Thursday they were shocked to see video of the alleged police assault on a man later identified as Ken Tsang Kin-chiu, a member of the pro-democracy Civic Party. His lawyer says Tsang suffered multiple injuries that may have come from sticks and other instruments.

Video of the beating has riled up a protest movement that has had trouble keeping its momentum and resulted in demands for a criminal probe. Hong Kong police said the incident is being investigated and that the seven police officers involved have been reassigned from their regular duties.

A video has emerged of someone looking like Tsang pouring a liquid onto police before the incident. Supporters of the police say the officers may have been goaded into responding.

Early Thursday, in a possible response to the beating video, protesters tried to shut down a major road near Leung’s office, and police used pepper spray to disperse them, according to local media. By Thursday evening the area was calm, with only several dozen onlookers and a heavy police presence.

Since Sept. 28, when police used tear gas on students, protesters have occupied thoroughfares in three Hong Kong districts, demanding a more open elections system for the city in 2017. China’s Communist Party, which took control of Hong Kong in 1997, has offered universal suffrage to residents, but it will only let them vote on candidates screened and approved by a nominating committee. Protesters object to this system, fearing the nominating committee will be dominated by the same type of Beijing loyalists who elected Leung as chief executive.

The street occupations have tied up traffic on other roads and harmed some businesses, particularly those that cater to mainland Chinese tourists. On Wednesday in Paris, the parent company of Louis Vuitton, LVMH Mote Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, announced that its retail sales were significantly down in Hong Kong.

In his comments, Leung didn’t rule out the possibility that police might forcibly remove the protesters.

“We do not want to see anyone, including students, continuing to occupy the roads for a long time and creating conflict with the public who are disgruntled,” he said. “We don’t want to see clashes.”

A day earlier, a Hong Kong magnate described as Asia’s richest man issued a statement urging protesters, whom he addressed as “young friends,” to go home.

“I ask you not to let today’s passion become tomorrow’s regret,” said Li Ka-shing, who made much of his wealth from health and beauty products and shipping facilities. “I plead that you immediately return to the side of your family members.”

Thursday night, few young protestors in Admiralty, near the government complex, appeared to be following his advice. Several thousand milled about or sat in the road, listening to speeches. A highlight of the night was a “marathon,” with yellow-clad runners dashing amid the encampment.

Lam, a first-year student at Hong Kong’s version of junior college, brought her homework to the protest to prep for midterms next month. To help students like her, Admiralty protest organizers have set up a “study corner,” with tables, chairs and lights, inside the barricaded thoroughfare. Scores of students were seated there Thursday, noses in their books.

“It is great to see,” said Bill Wong, 51, walking by the study corner. “They are providing support for the protesters, but they also don’t want to give up on their studies.”