Both sides hemmed in, but someone must step up to the plate

Both sides hemmed in, but someone must step up to the plate
Thousands of protesters gather in Hong Kong's Admiralty district after the government called off the talks with students on October 10, 2014.

Now, what next?

Talks are off, and actions to escalate protests are back on - a state of affairs that neither side really wants to see.

The question, though, is: What is a way out acceptable to both?

The government appears to be banking on the protest movement simply running out of steam from fatigue and public unhappiness.

Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam - she has been tasked with holding talks with protesters - are off to Guangdong this weekend to attend a Pan-Pearl River Delta event, perhaps signalling a hands-off approach for now.

But this would be neither sustainable nor a display of leadership on the government's part. It would also delay the inevitable - resolving the crisis in a way that strives to address the concerns of a substantial swathe of society.

Academic Joseph Cheng, also a key pro-democracy player, puts it thus: "You cannot imagine you can just forget about it or crack down on the protesters, otherwise there will be wave after wave of civil disobedience in future.

"We all know that protest activities can't last indefinitely. But now that people have tasted their power, they can repeat the Occupy movement - and come back."

What is needed, he says, is for the government to launch a new round of public consultation, so that "a supplementary report" can be presented to China's legislature, the National People's Congress' Standing Committee (NPCSC), to "revise" its decision. The NPCSC had announced on Aug 31 strict rules for Hong Kong's chief executive election, triggering the current stand-off.

"At least, it allows all parties a kind of retreat," says Professor Cheng.

Some within the movement - himself included - believe protesters could meanwhile conserve their energy and buy goodwill from the community with a partial withdrawal. "I would say, retreat from Mong Kok and Causeway Bay, and at Harcourt Road, give back half the road."

But, he acknowledges, with the organisers split between various groups, it is tough to come to a consensus. Others are less sanguine that his idea will be acceptable to Beijing, leery as it is of any action that might signal it is susceptible to public pressure.

Still, a return to the table is a must, says political scientist Peter Cheung. To defuse the tension, he suggests that third-party mediators respected by both sides step in. These could include former Chief Justice Andrew Li.

Both Dr Cheung and sociologist and political commentator Lui Tai Lok believe now is the time for the protesters to use their leverage to change what they can.

This includes details of the specific composition of the nominating committee that pre-selects chief executive candidates, to ensure it is as "broadly representative" as possible. "Can we arrive at a kind of compromise, to democratise Hong Kong as much as possible without touching the Basic Law?" asks Prof Lui.

He thinks so. Next question: Who can step up to the plate?


This article was first published on Oct 11, 2014.
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