Student democracy talks with government called off

After two weeks of civil disobedience and massive demonstrations that shut down large areas of Hong Kong, student leaders agreed to start negotiations with the Hong Kong government in a bid to gain concessions for a more democratic election system – a key demand of the protests. But just hours before the talks were due to begin on 10 October, the government said the talks had been called off, leaving students questioning its real intentions.

Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam unilaterally announced the cancellation late on Thursday after the Hong Kong Federation of Students called on Hong Kong people to take to the streets, announcing a “new wave of civil disobedience”.

HKFS Secretary-general Alex Chow said on Thursday that street protests would continue until the government responded to student demands. Barricades had not been removed from the streets, even after the talks were agreed earlier in the week.

Such calls were “against the principles” of the talks, Lam said, adding that “constructive dialogue” would be impossible. The protests, which she termed “illegal occupation” of the streets, should not be used as a bargaining chip for talks or be linked to them in any way.

Trust undermined

Both sides had accused the other of “undermining trust” in the proposed talks. Students complained that Lam had failed to come up with a venue for talks, indicating that she had never been serious about them.

Even before the talks were called off, students privately said they did not believe the government was sincere. They said they did not expect the Hong Kong government – which they see as following Beijing’s diktat – to give way on substantive points to allow fairer elections in Hong Kong.

Large-scale protests continued for almost two weeks, but thinned substantially by 6 October, when student groups said they were nearing agreement to engage in talks after HKFS leaders met with Hong Kong government representatives at the University of Hong Kong.

HKFS deputy leader Lester Shum said he had agreed with Lau Kong-wah, Hong Kong’s undersecretary for constitutional and mainland affairs who led the talks on the government side, that “multiple rounds” of talks would take place based on an equal relationship and mutual respect.

“We want it to be a substantive dialogue, not just a casual chat or a consultative session,” Shum told media last Monday, when the date was set for talks to begin.

Shum also warned that the dialogue, involving a maximum of five people from each side, could end if the government began actions to clear the protest sites or failed to guarantee the safety of protesters – an indication of the students’ power to swiftly garner support around their cause.

“People are ready to come out again if the government fails to demonstrate sincerity in solving the political crisis,” he said.


However, Shum later appeared angry that the government was insisting the talks focus on the legal and constitutional points of political reform only.

The students' and pro-democracy groups’ main demand – the resignation of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive CY Leung and an end to China’s plan to vet candidates who will stand for Hong Kong’s elections in 2017 – have been repeatedly rejected by the government.

“We want a binding agreement, we want concrete results... What we are aiming for is to break this impasse and advance political reform, but the government hasn't shown signs of wanting to do that,” Shum said.

He was also concerned that the talks might simply be a delaying tactic by the government. “We don't want to fall into the trap set up by the government,” he said.

“If they [government officials] do not try to face our demands or propose ways to solve the political problems directly, we may end the dialogue,” Shum said on Wednesday.

The battle over the 2017 elections will move to the Hong Kong legislature if talks with the government fail, Shum said, and students may take further action – although he would not give details of what that could involve.

The government has been careful to talk only with the student groups and not political pro-democracy groups who are backing the students. But diplomats in Hong Kong said failure to take the students seriously would mean the focus could shift to the pro-democracy groups, including in the legislature.

Representatives of European Union countries based in Hong Kong expressed concern about protests in their annual scheduled meeting with Hong Kong legislators this week. Democrat legislator Helena Wong, who attended the meeting, said the diplomats expressed hope of a positive outcome from the dialogue with students.

Government response

In a televised address on Monday 6 October Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the government was “sincere in having dialogue on constitutional development” with the protesters.

The government negotiator Lau said the discussions, which were held at Hong Kong University, were “very, very good”.

"We hope that it will not be the only dialogue with the students. We hope to have more than one meeting with them," he said.

The government’s undertaking was that if there is “any consensus raised in the meeting, the government will implement it with the agreement of both sides".

But any outcome may not be soon in coming.

“The pro-democracy movement is prepared for a long-term struggle. It hopes to be able to launch wave after wave of peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience campaigns,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.

“Don’t think this will be over soon. This is fundamentally a war of patience and a test of our endurance,” Joshua Wong, the teenage leader of the Scholarism group tweeted last week.

The protests began on 22 September as a university boycott and escalated when students stormed the premises of the government headquarters on 28 September, when police used pepper spray and teargas on unarmed students.

Thousands of Hong Kong residents then came out on the streets in support of the students.

HKFS estimated that 200,000 people participated in the protests on 2 October, while police pulled back to avoid new confrontations. By Wednesday 8 October the numbers had dwindled to a few hundred protesters at key sites.