In a significant turn that could fracture Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, the territory's chief executive said late Thursday that members of his administration would hold talks with a student group. But he refused to bow to activists' demands that he step down.
Exactly when, where and how the discussions would be conducted, not to mention what they might encompass, remained unclear.
It was also uncertain whether the talks would bring an end to the street protests that have engulfed the semiautonomous Chinese territory for five days. But the gambit seemed to have the immediate effect of dividing the thousands of young students who are the driving force behind the demonstrations.
The eleventh-hour offer capped a day of rising tension that began with the Chinese Communist Party strongly denouncing "illegal" rallies that it said threatened to drag the Asian financial hub into chaos. Some protest organizers had vowed to occupy government buildings unless Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying quits.
The atmosphere became increasingly strained as the day wore on, and protesters were set on edge when police were seen carrying what appeared to be anti-riot equipment into government headquarters. As night fell, thousands of people, many equipped with goggles, masks and other gear to protect against tear gas, surrounded access points to Leung's office building.
Taking to the airwaves at 11:30 p.m., the Beijing-backed Leung declared, "I won't resign because I need to complete the task of political reform and to realize 'one person, one vote' for the 5 million eligible voters in Hong Kong."
"As long as protesters do not challenge [or] storm the police cordon," he said, "we can tolerate their sit-in on the premises of the government office compound."
Chinese leaders have said Hong Kong voters can for the first time cast ballots in 2017 for the chief executive, now chosen by a Beijing-friendly committee of 1,200 people. However, authorities want to limit voters' choice to two or three candidates who pass muster with Beijing, which protesters say amounts to "fake democracy."
Leung designated Carrie Lam, chief secretary of Hong Kong, to meet with representatives of the Hong Kong Federation of Students "as soon as possible" to discuss a way out of the conflict. The student group later said it would hold a public meeting with Lam, stating that the "only agenda … is the political reform." The timing and location were not mentioned. Protesters had been pressing for a public dialogue, with journalists in attendance.
Outside Leung's offices, some expressed frustration, saying the promise of talks appeared to be a stalling tactic and a move to divide and weaken the movement.
"I feel like the last week has been a waste," said Pat Lam, a hotel management student. "I feel like deep down this nonviolence will not work."
Clayton Dube, executive director of the USC U.S.-China Institute, said it appeared that the government "is bringing in sticks and offering a carrot."
"By doing this, it is taking the initiative away from the students and putting them in a defensive position."
Two student leaders of the demonstrations later appeared at the gathering, urging the youths to have patience given the proposed talks.
But division among the crowd spilled out into the open, with some people insisting that protesters should block the adjacent four-lane expressway, Lung Wo Road, which is the only major east-west transportation artery on Hong Kong island that has not been shut down by the demonstrations. Such a move would presumably elicit a strong response from police.
As groups of teenagers debated the wisdom of blocking the road, dozens of other protesters linked arms in a human chain to ensure that at least one lane in each direction remained clear for traffic.
What Lam's talks with the Federation of Students might yield was unclear; Leung said the discussion would have to be held within the framework of Beijing's ruling about the 2017 vote. That condition would seem to exclude the protesters' key demand: rolling back the vetting requirement and allowing open nominations.
And even if the conversation yielded some result, it was unclear whether those who have thronged the streets would end their sit-in.
Though there have been three main entities rallying people to the streets — the Federation of Students, a youth group called Scholarism and the Occupy Central With Love and Peace movement — the protests have taken on a diffuse, spontaneous nature, and many demonstrators say they have no allegiance to any of the three groups.
The federation is by far the oldest, broadest and most well-established of the three groups; many of today's government officials were members during their university days.
In contrast, the other groups were essentially established as vehicles of protest. Occupy Central is led by two professors and a pastor, who are often derided by critics as "the three stooges," while Scholarism includes secondary school students and is led by 17-year-old Joshua Wong, who headed a successful campaign against government plans for a "patriotic education" curriculum.
After the government's offer for dialogue, it was unclear whether activists would continue urging crowds to take to the streets. If they do, demonstrators will face the challenge of trying to ensure that wider public opinion does not turn against them as the economic effect grows and some inconveniences, such as rerouted bus lines, continue.
Hong Kongers, promised greater civil liberties than their mainland counterparts when Chinese rule resumed in 1997, previously have managed to press Beijing into concessions by taking to the streets.
In 2003, hundreds of thousands of people marched to protest an antisubversion bill that many believed would restrict freedom of speech. The legislation was shelved. In 2012, tens of thousands of students and parents demonstrated against the "patriotic education" plan put forth by Leung, forcing him to pull back.
Though Beijing has voiced strong support so far for Leung, that could change. In 2005, unpopular Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa resigned after losing the confidence of Beijing.
Whether the offer of dialogue is genuine or a stratagem to defuse the protests remains to be seen. But Ma Ngok, an associate professor of government at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said it could give Beijing leaders what they needed most in a time of crisis: time to figure out how to respond.
"This time, the public is asking for major institutional change, which Beijing is not willing to grant. So this is less likely for them. It is more difficult to make them agree to this change."
Law is a special correspondent. Times staff writer David Pierson in Los Angeles contributed to this report.