Hong Kong protests: Ebbing but maybe not ending

Analects, The Economist – THE number of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong has shrunk from tens of thousands at the demonstrations’ peak to a few hundred scattered across three districts of the city, as people return to work and classes. But protesters say this is only the first round and have vowed to return to the streets if planned negotiations with the government fail to deliver concessions on electoral reform.

“It’s up to the government now. This is the first step, but the pressure has to continue,” says Alex Chow, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS). Mr Chow and his deputies will represent demonstrators in talks with Hong Kong’s second-in-command, the chief secretary, Carrie Lam, tentatively scheduled to take place within days. The government agreed yesterday to hold multiple rounds of negotiations on equal footing with student leaders in a public forum. Students had requested to speak with Ms Lam because they said they didn’t trust the chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.

During a tumultuous two weeks of protests, crowds had ebbed and surged in response to the use of force against protesters—police fired 87 rounds of tear gas on protesters the first weekend and pro-government mobs attacked them the next. Some of the mob that beat protesters and destroyed camps were members of triads (organised gangs) and the confrontations sent around 165 people to hospital. This mobilised protective older adults to flock to the streets to defend the students. Some say the protesters could already declare a moral victory. Contrary to its reputation as a staid and apolitical financial centre, Hong Kong is the setting for hundreds of smaller-scale protests each year. The “Occupy Hong Kong” or “Umbrella Revolution” protests have demonstrated to the world that many in the city are intensely unhappy with what they view as China’s incremental steps to carve away the special administrative region’s high level of autonomy, guaranteed to it under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. They also showcased a sense of civic responsibility as orderly protesters scrubbed roads and sorted their own rubbish.

But China’s central government has ruled out amending its August 31st decision that Hong Kong could elect its leader in 2017 only after a closed nominating committee vets the candidates. The National People’s Congress proposed that a 1,200-member committee made up of members mostly loyal to the Communist Party is to choose two to three candidates who must obtain more than half the votes of the committee before being able to stand for election. China had long promised that the polls would be the first of their kind involving “universal suffrage” but had not before spelled out how limited voters’ choices would be.  

Scant middle ground is available when the central leadership has so clearly indicated it will not accept full Western-style democracy within China’s borders. This leaves only a few possible concessions the Hong Kong government might be able to offer during negotiations, and it is unclear whether any of them would satisfy idealistic student leaders. 

By agreeing to protesters’ conditions to begin talks and abstaining from using more force to clear crowds, the local government has shown it could be willing to consider some concessions. This may include holding a new round of public consultations on political reform, proposing minor changes to the nominating committee’s role or pledging to do away with functional constituencies in the Legislative Council elections in 2016, where professional interest groups currently elect nearly half of lawmakers.

The students’ original demands were ambitious. In a manifesto issued last month, they called on the central authorities to withdraw their decision and “issue an apology to the Hong Kong people”. They said voters should directly nominate candidates for elections and called for the resignation of Hong Kong’s top three officials (including Ms Lam). On the streets protesters have consistently called for the resignation of Mr Leung and for “full democracy not fake democracy”.

The students’ leaders have so far been silent on whether they would consider downgrading their demands, saying they would consult with protesters and other democratic groups before setting an agenda. Behind the scenes, legislators from the sympathetic “pan-democratic” bloc may try to convince protesters to accept a lower threshold for the nominating committee’s selection of candidates. Hong Kong is governed by a mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which says a nominating committee must have a role in the selection of the chief executive through universal suffrage. Moderates arguethat asking for a change to the Basic Law text would be a non-starter, but a lower bar for nomination of candidates could help get at least one democratic candidate running in the 2017 elections.

If the talks fail, there could be many more rounds of street protests in Hong Kong. Leaders in Beijing would need to choose between the possibility of having one democratic candidate running for chief executive or the likelihood that angry protests would cause chaos on Hong Kong’s streets—and perhaps inspire mainland Chinese activists—for years to come.

(Picture credit: Xaume Olleros/AFP)

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