Students at top table in first democracy talks with government

Three weeks after a student-led university boycott escalated into full blown protests bringing parts of the city to a standstill, democracy talks between students and Hong Kong government representatives finally got underway on Tuesday.

The two hour debate broadcast live, including on big screens in the streets, was held between the five student representatives and government officials in a bid to find a way to halt the protests which continue to disrupt major business areas.

The talks, an unusually open debate on democracy, dealt with details of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution known as the Basic Law and whether there could be a bigger say for Hong Kong people in ensuring candidates for the city’s chief executive were truly representative, as well as with the Hong Kong administration’s record in properly conveying Hong Kong people’s views to the leadership in Beijing.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief secretary for administration representing the government said afterwards that the government did not expect to agree with students in a single discussion “but it was very constructive”.

However, student leaders said the government had been vague and offered no solutions to attempts by Beijing to deny the city the right to elect leaders not pre-vetted by the Chinese government, which sparked off the initial protests.

Lester Shum, deputy secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, or HKFS, said “the single message we got is just that the government wants us to pocket the political reform proposal first and accept the nominating committee”. He was referring to the Beijing backed committee who would pre-select the candidates for chief executive to be elected in 2017.

“Have we not made enough concessions? So many young people have sacrificed their studies and time. We are even willing to be arrested and go to jail. What do we want? The right to vote, the right to be voted and [to be a] voter equally,” Shum said during the talks.

Student demands

The students’ main demand was that the Hong Kong government should accurately reflect public opinion to the Beijing government, and that a timetable for democratic reform in Hong Kong should be apparent. “We have heard nothing from the government on how to solve the [current] political problem,” Shum said during the talks, accusing officials of taking students for a "walk in the garden".

The students urged the government to build trust by putting forward a "realistic and feasible" timetable and roadmap for democratic development.

However, with the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive due in 2017, Lam insisted that it should go ahead unchanged, though she suggested there may be room for manoeuvre after that.

Lam said: “Political reform is a complicated and sensitive topic. The society has very many different views. We cannot do things all over again because only one side objects [to Beijing’s decision].”

However she acknowledged that since Beijing’s decision on how the chief executive would be chosen was made in August, “I must admit a major incident took place in society on a massive scale with far reaching implications”, she said referring to the student-led protests.

In the streets where pro-democracy supporters already back the students, many said the student representatives showed more leadership qualities than the government officials during the debate, as they attempted to put forward their demands and bring the administration to account.

They showed detailed knowledge of the Basic Law and other issues. Even as the talks were being broadcast, this sparked spontaneous discussion on the streets on the fine points of Hong Kong’s political system which is allowed greater democracy than mainland China under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ agreement with one time colonial ruler Britain when Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997.

But it was far from clear whether the talks between the Hong Kong administration and students would help clear the streets – the unspoken main aim of the talks.

“The Hong Kong government can either block the road to democracy or help remove barricades,” said Alex Chow, HKFS secretary-general, who took part in the talks.

Little expected

Little had been expected from the talks, with Hong Kong’s chief executive CY Leung saying beforehand that he expected several rounds of discussions. They were not “negotiations”, but rather an opportunity for students to make their case directly to the government, Leung said.

Deeply unpopular because he is seen as a Beijing mouthpiece, Leung himself did not officially take part in the talks, which were headed by Lam, a civil servant.

Professor Michael DeGolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transition Project at Hong Kong Baptist University said “it was very striking that the three people who spoke for the government were civil servants; the politicians stayed completely silent”.

“They showed no leadership at all,” he said.

Among the crowd in Admiralty, close to government offices where major clashes between police and students took place on 28 September, a sign close to the big screen broadcasting the talks read "Talks of the century, Chief Executive is onlooker”.

Leung however met one of the student demands by separating the talks from the clearance of the streets. “The dialogue and clearance are separate issues; we won't not clear because we are talking and won't not talk because we clear,” he said last week.

Talks scheduled a week ago were cancelled amid mutual recriminations from both sides, with students saying it was a ploy by government to get protesters off the streets, and Carrie Lam insisting it was the students’ fault for calling for protesters to continue.

The cancellation of talks merely renewed the protests with no clear indication of how they would end.

University venue

One of the sticking points the first time round, and another reason they failed to go ahead, was where the talks should be held. A number of venues had been mooted including several of Hong Kong’s university campuses.

Academics had offered to mediate between the government and students to facilitate the talks as the war of attrition on the streets of Hong Kong between protesters and police continued.

University leaders played a key role. When the vice-chancellors of the University of Hong Kong, Professor Peter Mathieson, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Professor Joseph Sung, arrived at the main protest venue on 3 October to address students, a huge cheer went up.

In the end, Tuesday’s talks were presided over by the head of Lingnan University, Professor Leonard Cheng, which itself caused comment because of his past role in advising CY Leung during his election to the post in 2012.

However, it emerged Cheng had been put forward by Hong Kong’s eight main universities and he later insisted he would remain impartial. “The meeting is to discuss political reform”, Cheng said as the debate kicked off.

In the end the talks took place at the Hong Kong Academy of Medicine, a low-key institution that was seen to be neutral, but which students noted was a long way away from areas of Hong Kong that were being occupied and the campus hubs of the student movement.

It became clear that Hong Kong University or HKU, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong or CUHK, had become too politicised to hold talks after some 30 members of the pro-Beijing anti-Occupy ‘Blue Ribbon’ movement demonstrated at HKU on 17 October demanding action against the leader of the pro-democracy Occupy Central group, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an HKU law professor.

A similar demonstration took place at CUHK where Chan Kin-man, a co-founder of Occupy Central, is an academic.

Leticia Lee, the so-called ‘Blue Ribbon’ campaign leader – named after the blue ribbons pinned to their clothing to distinguish themselves from yellow-ribbon pro-democracy protesters, said the two professors should not be encouraging students to take part in what she called an illegal movement.

A supporter of the students who had been watching the broadcast live and who gave his name only as Winston said he was determined to continue the protest until the government stands up for Hong Kong's democratic right. "I will be coming down here every day," he said.

Free speech

Whether or not the talks are successful in changing Hong Kong’s political system, academics say young people have been changed forever, and even if protests die down, they could flare up again.

HKU Vice-chancellor Mathieson later said in an interview with a science magazine: “The students are empowered by what’s been going on. They’ve become very significant figures in the media and in deliberations with the government and I imagine this is going to have an effect for years to come in terms of student activism.”

“I regard Hong Kong as a place where free speech is alive and well and my job and the job of people like me is to make sure that we protect that in the future.”