CHINA: Protest Organizers Claim Progress for Hong Kong

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Date: 6 October 2014

Type: Commentary

Source:The New York Times

Keywords: Hong Kong protests

HONG KONG — As the protests dwindled and life in Hong Kong returned to its frenetic routine on Monday, organizers of the biggest pro-democracy political movement in China since the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square said they had moved the needle, however slightly, toward a more democratic future.

Before the movement drew headlines around the world more than a week ago, the prospect of meaningful talks between democracy advocates and a government bent on doing Beijing’s will was nonexistent, democrats said.

Now, preliminary talks have begun, and the student-led movement has strengthened the hand of Hong Kong’s democratic lawmakers.

“The power shown by the people in this civil protest is the power of the powerless,” Albert Ho, the former head of the Democratic Party and a candidate for chief executive in 2012, said in a telephone interview. “We have been able at least to create sufficient pressure on the government for the commencement of a dialogue. They know that the theme of discussion is political reform. Previously, everybody treated this as a closed chapter.”

Although the protest leaders and the remaining participants, who still numbered in the low thousands, insisted that the so-called Umbrella Revolution was a long-term project that was far from over, there was a sense on Monday of a winding down and, after 11 days of street protests, a dissipation of energy.

“I’m very, very, very tired,” said Dennis Chan, 28, letting out a sigh as he prepared to go home after 10 days at the sit-in near the government center. “We all are.”

“It won’t end today, but maybe tomorrow, maybe later, too, when there are fewer and fewer people,” he added. “It’s hard to say that we’ve won this battle. But it’s been positive in making pressure on the government to open a conversation with the students.”

Even the protest leaders, as they began to reflect on what the movement achieved and where it failed, were already adopting the past tense.

“All gates were closed before,” Yvonne Leung, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said in a phone interview. “We have now won some space for dialogue, and we’ve seen a growth in our civil society. The people used to be unaware of their own power, but now they know.”

On Monday, the student groups that are the driving force behind the protests honored a commitment to clear the barricades enough to allow civil servants to return to work. By early Monday morning, all entrances to the main government office complex were open, and workers were streaming in.

Protesters remained at the camps, and some roads remained blocked at the two main protest sites — at the city government offices downtown and in the Mong Kok neighborhood across the harbor — but just steps away it was business as usual in this bustling financial hub.

Despite the lowered tensions, the two sides remained far apart and the existence of talks hardly assured their success. The official talks between student leaders and the Hong Kong government, led by Hong Kong’s chief secretary, Carrie Lam, had not begun. But on Monday night, after two days of preliminary talks, their representatives announced that they hoped to begin negotiations this week, though they had not yet agreed on the subjects.

The protesters are pushing the central government to revisit a decision made in late August by China’s Parliament, the National People’s Congress, that effectively limited candidates for Hong Kong’s highest office, the chief executive, to those approved by a pro-Beijing panel.

Mr. Ho, who along with founders of the protest movement is advising the student leaders in the talks, said Beijing and Hong Kong needed to “go back to the drawing board” and include the views of the democratic protest movement in a report to the National People’s Congress. “Everything is in the hands of Beijing,” he said.

But the government has all but ruled out such a reset.

Two Hong Kong government officials said that the current process for drafting a new elections law already called for a round of public consultations but was limited to how a nominating committee would be structured. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was highly unlikely that the Hong Kong government would agree to revisit the decision of the National People’s Congress.

That demand by the students and democratic lawmakers is unrealistic, they said. “Sooner or later, it’s going to sink in with them that what they’re asking for, they’re just not going to get,” one of the officials said.

Moreover, the talks provide a useful delay for the government, helping to sap the energy of the protests without promising a meaningful compromise.

Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing member of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, said that was a conscious element of the government’s strategy.

“Time is on the government’s side,” he said in a telephone interview. The talks “keep the Occupy movement under certain constraints so that it really doesn’t affect the day-to-day business in Hong Kong.”

In a brief televised speech on Monday evening, however, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, said the government was “sincere” in its desire to hold talks with the students. He also appealed for the protesters still in Mong Kok to leave, and said that for people’s personal safety and “to prevent violent crimes,” the police would “take action at an appropriate time.”

The protesters’ demands include Mr. Leung’s resignation, an open election for chief executive with no vetting committee on nominations, and a chance to revisit the entire process that led to the National People’s Congress decision.

Mr. Tien said the students should focus on realistic goals, like working to adjust the composition of the nominating committee.

Yet in a sign of the gulf that lies between even the more realistic positions of the two camps, Mr. Ho said that Mr. Tien’s suggestion was off the table. “We are totally uninterested in it,” Mr. Ho said.

For the die-hard protesters, political realism is not necessarily the goal.

“Belief is the only reason to be here, even if it’s not realistic belief,” said Paul Cheung, 50, a sales manager who was sitting on a concrete divider in the middle of Nathan Road, normally a major thoroughfare in Mong Kok. “You must speak out for what you believe in, and then the changes will always take time.”

Reporting was contributed by Chris Buckley, Keith Bradsher, Austin Ramzy and Edward Wong in Hong Kong, and research by Kiki Zhao in Beijing.

See online : The New York Times

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