Pascal Lamy, the WTO's director-general, officially opened the Dec. 13-18 meeting, welcoming nearly 6,000 delegates from the Geneva-based trade body's 149 members, urging them to be "bold, open-minded and prepared to take some risks."
That challenge was appropriate, given the impasse gripping negotiations that many delegates blame on EU intransigence over opening their farm markets to foreign competition.
The Hong Kong meeting originally was meant to draw up an outline for a global treaty by the end of 2006 to lower or eliminate trade barriers in agriculture, manufacturing and services.
But the talks have ground to a virtual halt amid accusations from poorer nations, which depend heavily on agricultural trade, that the EU, U.S., Japan and other wealthy countries haven't offered to cut their agricultural tariffs and farm subsidies enough.
EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson has said that the European Union won't change its offer of an average 46 percent cut in farm tariffs unless he sees some movement from developing nations on offering to reduce their trade barriers on manufactured goods and services.
The U.S. has proposed a 60-percent cut in subsidies it can offer American farmers by 2010 under various domestic support programs. But developing nations criticize the offer as cutting the amount governments are allowed to spend, rather than what they can actually pay in subsidies — meaning spending at current levels could continue.
India's trade minister, a key figure in the talks, said that while a breakthrough would be unlikely at the meeting, he didn't foresee an outright collapse like the previous ministerial gathering in Cancun, Mexico, two years ago. Differences over agriculture was the culprit there, too.
"Cancun was an outburst of a lack of hope. Now countries are hoping," said Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath told the Associated Press.
"The next six days are going to see efforts by everybody to move forward," Nath said. "But efforts do not necessarily mean there will be results, because the issues are very, very contentious."
Clearly, free trade is an emotional issue for thousands of protesters who have gathered in Hong Kong to voice their opposition to the WTO, which they view as favoring the interests of major corporations and wealthy nations.
A few blocks from the convention site, several dozen protesters — mainly South Korean farmers — hit police officers with bamboo sticks and tried to ram through a roadblock. The police responded with pepper spray.
"The WTO is not the most popular international organization around," Lamy said.
The farmers, who earlier marched through the city waving anti-WTO banners and chanting slogans, fear that if their domestic agricultural markets are opened up under an eventual WTO treaty, they won't be able to compete — and possibly lose their livelihoods or land.
"The WTO wants to impose other country's rice and food on South Korea," said Tae-sook Lee, the head of a South Korean farmers' association. "If the WTO allows imports of foreign rice and food into Korea, 100 percent of 3.5 million Korean farmers will die."
Some delegates said that with the meeting underway, there seemed to be at least the willingness to negotiate.
"There are signs of a change in the attitude: you move then I'll move," said Seiichi Kondo, Japan's ambassador in charge of international trade and economics.
"Each responsible country feels a strong pressure to engage in a real deal or business. We have to give something and of course we have to gain something," Kondo said.
The United States and EU, meanwhile, sought to highlight a positive initiative by urging trading partners to help the world's poorest nations with money to help build their trade infrastructure and other services to help them better compete in world markets.
The EU announced it would boost its annual contribution for so-called "Aid-for-Trade" by $1.18 billion by the year 2010, bringing its total to $2.4 billion per year.
"Europe did not come to Hong Kong empty-handed on 'Aid-for-Trade,"' EU trade chief Peter Mandelson said.
The United States contributed $1.34 billion in fiscal year 2005, and U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman was to unveil additional measures Wednesday.
The WTO includes 32 nations such least-developed countries that have per capital national income of less than $750.