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Hong Kong’s protests: Poor conversation

The city’s leader suggests democracy could give the poor too much power

From the print edition, The Economist – IT WAS a scene that must have made China’s leaders squirm with uncomfortable memories. On October 21st senior officials in Hong Kong held talks live on television with protesters clad in T-shirts displaying the slogan “Freedom now”. The encounter was the first between the two sides since pro-democracy unrest broke out in Hong Kong nearly a month ago, and the first of its kind anywhere in China since hunger-striking students in Tiananmen Square met government leaders in 1989. The meeting, however, was as unproductive as the one 25 years ago. As The Economist went to press, angry students were still on the streets.

On the eve of the talks Hong Kong’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, set a tone that won few hearts among the determined few hundred, and sometimes several thousand, demonstrators who have snarled traffic in parts of the city since late September. Mr Leung told foreign journalists that full democracy would involve a “numbers game” that would skew policies towards the poor. The protests were triggered by a ruling in August by China’s parliament that candidates for the post of chief executive, as Hong Kong’s leader is known, be chosen by a “nominating committee” largely formed of pro-establishment figures including many businesspeople. The winner would be selected, for the first time in Hong Kong’s history, by popular vote.

The meeting was held in a campus conference room. It was led on the government side by the territory’s most senior civil servant, Carrie Lam, and was watched on giant screens by thousands of protesters on the streets. Many of them booed when officials spoke and cheered their own side. (Chinese state television broadcast a couple of minutes of the two-hour event, but carried none of the protesters’ remarks; the mainland’s media have strenuously censored news of the unrest.)

The demonstrators had plenty to boo about. Ms Lam offered no big concessions and all but admitted that her hands were tied. Hong Kong, she said, was “not an independent entity” and could not “decide on its own its political development.” She said she was afraid the two sides could only “agree to disagree”, but that she hoped more talks would be held.

Ms Lam said the Hong Kong government would send a report on the protest movement to officials in Beijing, but did not say how this might affect their thinking. Almost certainly, the answer is: not much. Mr Leung has echoed their views that unspecified “foreign forces” are behind the unrest, and has said that Hong Kong is “lucky” that the central government has not yet felt it necessary to intervene. He has suggested there might be ways of making the nominating committee more representative. But student leaders appear little interested in what would probably be small tweaks.

They also seem little deterred by heckling from angry groups of residents who have grown tired of the prolonged disruption to traffic and business. Speaking to a crowd of pro-democracy protesters after taking part in the meeting with officials, one student leader, Yvonne Leung, said: “They want us to give up, but we won’t. The government has not given us what we want so we will continue to stay.”

A day after the talks heavy rain dampened some protesters’ spirits. But many were prepared. What is often called Hong Kong’s “umbrella revolution” has not transformed the territory’s politics, but participants still proudly carry the symbol of their unrest.

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