As the midnight deadline set by demonstrators for him to resign approached, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying refused to step down but pledged to hold talks between Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and the protestors:
Leung praised the Hong Kong police and the SAR government for their restraint. He said that the protests would continue to be tolerated as long as protestors do no attempt to occupy important government buildings, such as the police headquarters and the chief executive’s office. Leung said that he did not want a confrontation between police and protestors, and urged protestors not to advance on the police cordons. When asked about reports that the Hong Kong police are armed with rubber bullets, Leung emphasized that the police will continue to exercise restraint. Still, he also urged to protestors to end their occupation of the city center.
Though Leung offered the protestors a dialogue with Carrie Lam, there still seems to be little to no room for compromise. Leung insisted repeatedly that the dialogue and the ultimate solution must follow Hong Kong’s Basic Law and work within the framework of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) decision on Hong Kong’s elections. Following these two guidelines is the only way to have universal suffrage in 2017, Leung told reporters. The protestors have already indicated they are not willing to accept the NPSC decision, which would see all candidates for chief executive be nominated by a Beijing-friendly committee.
In fact, there is some room to maneuver for both sides. Although Hong Kong residents are unlikely to get the precise sort of direct vote protesters are demanding, the composition of the election committee that vets nominees, the number of nominees and the use of secret balloting could be open to negotiation. There’s also a possibility that Leung may be cashiered eventually, though if that happens before 2017 his successor will be chosen the same way he was.
The question is whether Xi can afford to project an image of weakness by permitting such negotiations and considering even minor compromises. The demonstrations that are paralyzing Hong Kong’s Central district today have as many dissimilarities with Tiananmen Square in 1989 as they have parallels. And the world has changed dramatically, as has China. But in the end the outcome may ride on the same question that so frightened the Communist Party mandarins back then: whether the leader in charge of the world’s largest authoritarian nation can stomach an uprising of democracy for very long.
Srdja Popovic and Tori Porell praise the protest movement’s organization, orderliness, and focus:
Although it may seem obvious that a protest movement must win popular support to combat oppression, it is no easy feat, and something we have seen movements in dozens of countries fail to accomplish. The staunch adherence to nonviolence Occupy Central has demonstrated takes preparation, training, and discipline—a combination that’s very rare for many movements. Most of the time, organizers aren’t prepared to handle the crowds that surge into the streets, and with no way to maintain calm and cohesion, too many movements have been derailed by a few thrown rocks or smashed storefronts. Governments seize on the smallest acts of disorder or violence as excuses to crack down. However, Occupy Central’s organizers seem to have come prepared. By issuing the manual and attempting to train their activists, they have maintained a united front and warded off the pitfalls that plague too many social movements.
But Richard C. Bush fears that this won’t last:
The unity and leadership of the opposition camp is a matter for concern. The New York Times had a good article this morning on the amorphous, loosely led character of the movement (“Hong Kong Protests Are Leaderless but Orderly”). Those who are seeking more democracy than Beijing is willing to grant are quite “democratic” within their ranks. The pro-democracy camp has suffered serious fragmentation over the last two decades, to its own detriment. This is a cause for serious concern. The beginning of the current crisis began when one faction of the pro-democracy camp decided on Friday evening to independently undertake action that was more radical than other factions preferred.
Chris Beam spots some hostility toward mainland Chinese around the edges of the movement, which could hurt its image:
Occupy Central organizers have done their best to distance themselves from the anti-mainland movement and keep the focus on election reform and universal suffrage. … But pro-democracy ideas and anti-mainland sentiment can be difficult to tease apart in Hong Kong. Many protesters want autonomy for Hong Kong in order to boost policies that will mitigate the influence of mainland Chinese on the island. For example, they support liming the number of properties that mainlanders can buy in Hong Kong and tightening visa regulations. (Ironically, the much-denounced chief executive C.Y. Leung has promoted some of these policies.) Of course, defensive policy positions easily blur with personal feelings toward mainland Chinese.
On the other hand, James Palmer argues that “Hong Kong is in many ways more Chinese these days than mainland China”, and that “might be what scares the authorities so much”:
The shrines and altars that dot Hong Kong speak to the richness of Chinese custom, annihilated between 1949 and 1976 in the mainland. … Hong Kong preserves hobby clubs, literary societies, family associations, clan ties and ancestral temples that once made up the fabric of Chinese society. In mainland cities, the once-vast variety of regional cultures and traditions has been wracked twice over; first by Maoist persecution and then by waves of migration and materialism. Most of all, the Hong Kong protests themselves are part of a great Chinese tradition, not only of peasant revolt and popular uprising, but of the student demonstrations that made China’s 20th century, from the protests of 4 May 1919 onwards. The Chinese public have never been the complacent sheep or communal masses of some westerners’ imagination, but an active, powerful force.
Overall, Jeffrey Wasserstrom is pessimistic about China’s political future:
Alas, what we have seen is Beijing leaping from a lack of self-confidence straight to a projection of arrogance. It is more insistent than ever on joining the global order only on its own terms. The party used to legitimate its rule by promising a China more equal than the country had ever been, run by an organization less corrupt than its predecessors. Now, flagrant inequalities and bountiful instances of corruption are exposed regularly.
So what rationale is left? Well, only a strong state can protect the nation’s interest in a chaotic world, the party line goes. And the current sorry state of the wider geopolitical world makes harping on this theme easier than it should be for Beijing. A cloak of counterterrorism hides state-waged terrors chillingly resonant of Cultural Revolution. The Hong Kong protesters are voices of freedom. When we look back on the demonstrations in 10 years, will we hear the song of China’s trajectory? Or will it be an elegiac tune that only makes us wistful for what China could have been?
Follow all of our Hong Kong coverage here.