Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests that have seen thousands take to the streets over the past week, leading to the closure of key arteries in the city, are entering a new phase.
On Oct. 2, minutes before the midnight deadline set by organizers for him to resign, the region’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying rejected their demand but said the government would pursue talks on constitutional development. With Leung not stepping down, some students quickly sought to make good on their threat to escalate action by tightening their cordon around the government complex that has been the focus of the protests.
The following evening, on Oct. 3, scuffles took place in the Mongkok district between students and anti-protester groups, with the police struggling to keep the opponents apart. The Hong Kong Federation of Students called off the proposed talks, accusing the government of enabling the attacks and failing to protect protesters.
Tensions are clearly high and rising. This delicate stage of the drama will be tricky. If the talks do go through, there will be little room to maneuver and prospects for success are slim. It is doubtful that the decision by China on how the chief executive should be elected in 2017 — through universal suffrage but with two or three candidates having to secure support of half the members of a nominating committee — can be reversed or altered. What might be negotiable is the constitution of the nominating committee. Student leaders, however, appear rigid in their insistence on open nomination.
As the protests have progressed, it has been unhelpful and even dangerous for many in Hong Kong and observers outside to cast the street action as a "revolution" or another Tiananmen Square. Time magazine’s latest cover declares the protests “The Umbrella Revolution.” It is almost as if some people are willing for some kind of major upheaval, or as tragic an end as with the June 4, 1989, military crackdown on student protesters in Beijing. Nobody should want that.
Reports of what is going on frequently give inaccurate information, including about such fundamental matters as what is actually in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. (There is no mention of universal suffrage in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, for example.) One Financial Timescommentator referred to Hong Kong's "independence" in 1997!
The focus of this debate should not be about what China promised or did not promise or what China is supposed to have agreed with the British and then is alleged to have backtracked on. Like them or not, Beijing's conservative positions and decisions have been consistent since even before the handover. Antagonizing China by chastising it for breaking promises is not going to help resolve anything.
At issue is what sort of democratic system Hong Kong needs to break its dysfunctional politics. Hong Kong should enjoy — and its leaders should exercise fully — the autonomy necessary to ensure that the region remains competitive in the global economy, attracts people of talent to come live and work, and narrows its hope-snuffing income and influence gaps. Beijing wants Hong Kong to get on with running itself. Its leaders have too many problems of their own to worry about. But no matter how special the region is, the mainland — the current sovereign — just as the British before them, will only let it move forward politically at a pace with which they are comfortable, whatever their critics say.
What is important at this stage is for all sides to find a face-saving end game. This is unlikely to involve China backing down from its decision on how the chief executive is elected. Leung’s resignation is also improbably, though his political future is in question. Even if he survives the protests, pushes through the China-approved electoral reforms, and is named as a candidate for chief executive in 2017, as the man who gassed the people, he would lose in a Hong Kong-wide poll. Leung could declare that, whether or not he is able to get the electoral reforms passed, he will not run for re-election.
More difficult will be how the players on the pro-democracy side proceed. The Occupy Central with Love & Peace movement decided to launch their long-planned civil disobedience action only after the student groups had spearheaded the protests and appeared to be leaving OCLP behind. OCLP appears to have lost control. The varying reactions to Leung’s refusal to resign showed how the students are also divided. The established pan-democratic politicians are similarly split. These factions quickly need to find common ground so there can be effective back-channel talks with the government on a way for the street blockades to end.
On Beijing's side, the protests certainly pose a challenge. While the perception is overblown that China is so worried about Hong Kong’s waywardness infecting the mainland, the leadership would prefer that the Hong Kong government resolve this disruption as soon as possible. China hosts the APEC summit in November and would not want to risk jeopardizing the participation of leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama by cracking down hard.
The longer the protests continue, however, the possibility of tough action increases. The hope is that there is no move to use the kind of force that was employed on Sept. 28 against peaceful protesters and certainly not the force unleashed on Chinese students in 1989.
Finally, it is important to remember that not all of Hong Kong is in crisis or chaos and not all of Hong Kong's people or even its youth are on the streets. The number of protesters is not as high as in other previous demonstrations. Most of Hong Kong is going about its business. More people are expressing their annoyance with the inconveniences caused by the protests. If this situation drags on, it will cause support for the protesters to crumble.
All the more, all sides should work hard to end the conflict swiftly and peacefully, rather than dig in for a drawn-out stalemate that does nobody any good.