HONG KONG (AP) — A pro-democracy protest that has blocked main roads in Hong Kong for almost two weeks could drag on for days yet, after talks aimed at resolving a bitter standoff between the city's government and student demonstrators collapsed Thursday.
The government called off the talks hours ahead of the scheduled time Friday, saying the dialogue had been "seriously undermined" by student leaders' call earlier in the day for supporters to turn out in force to occupy the main protest zone.
"I truly regret that we will not be able to have a meeting tomorrow which will produce any constructive outcome," said Chief Secretary Carrie Lam.
Even before the announcement, it was clear that the two sides hold vastly different positions over whether Hong Kongers could have more say in choosing the former British colony's leader.
Student leaders vow not to retreat from the streets even as the number of protesters occupying the main thoroughfare and streets in two busy shopping districts has dwindled sharply this week.
Protesters have occupied the streets since Sept. 28, when police used tear gas in a failed attempt to disperse tens of thousands of people in front of the government complex.
The protesters are demanding the government of the semiautonomous Chinese region abandon plans to allow Beijing to screen candidates for the city's inaugural elections for its leader in 2017. They also want current leader Leung Chun-ying, who was approved for the job by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing elites, to resign.
The government has suggested that it was impossible to meet the students' demands because Beijing had already set down the rules for the 2017 elections. It has also insisted that blocking roads and streets is illegal, and urged students to leave so the city can return to normal. Officials had nonetheless agreed to meet on Friday, proposing to focus the talks on legal technicalities.
That angered student leaders, who said the government was using the talks as a delaying tactic to dodge their demands.
Alex Chow of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of three groups coordinating the protests, said the city's students have been asking for dialogue with the government since they walked out of classes on Sept. 22 to press their demands.
"During those days we gave our sweat and our blood, we faced tear gas and some of us were arrested and we may face imprisonment in the future," Chow said.
"Even now, we are open to talks with the government anytime. They've shown they have no sincerity to shoulder their responsibility of facing the concerns of the Hong Kong people," he said.
Pro-democracy lawmakers, who so far haven't played much of a role in the civil disobedience campaign, said they would join in by blocking all government funding requests in the legislature except for the most urgent.
Student leaders are calling a rally Friday, urging supporters to redouble their efforts to occupy the main protest zone — a highway outside government headquarters that they have dubbed "Umbrella Square." Umbrellas used to combat police pepper spray and tear gas have become a symbol of the nonviolent movement.
The protests have shaken the administration of Leung, the city's Chief Executive, who is also facing a secret payout scandal involving a previously undisclosed deal between Leung and an Australian mining company worth 4 million pounds (US$6.4 million.)
The contract was dated December 2011 — several months before Leung took office, but a week after he declared he would run for the post. Both Leung's office and the company, UGL, said it was a standard confidential contract. Hong Kong's Justice Department said authorities will investigate after the city's anti-corruption watchdog on Thursday received a complaint regarding the contract.
The government's decision to call off the talks Thursday was greeted with sneers by the few hundred activists who continue to occupy the protest zone in Admiralty.
"Two days ago they wanted to talk, now they won't talk," said Candice Heung, a university administrator who often joins the protest after work. "This doesn't matter at all."
The reality, she said, is the government has no interest in sitting down with the students and is just dragging out the confrontation.
"They don't want to talk," she said.
Associated Press writers Tim Sullivan, Sylvia Hui and Joanna Chiu contributed to this report.