Hong Kong’s chief executive CY Leung broke a long silence today, saying he is happy to talk with student protest leaders next week, but that they may not be happy with his bottom line position: No real democracy is possible in Hong Kong.
Mr. Leung spoke to reporters today after refusing to appear before the city's 70-member legislative body amid roiling passions on the streets, where “Occupy”-style protesters have set up small tent areas to continue to press for free and fair elections in 2017.
Leung said the “most constructive” path forward is to “sit down and listen to the students … what we can do together.” But he said that his government is constrained from serious political reform by laws governing Hong Kong, a former British colony, since its handover to China in 1997.
"The Hong Kong … government cannot make something that is not in the Basic Law possible,” Leung said. “Politics is the art of the possible and we have to draw a line between possibilities and impossibilities."
Michael Davis, a constitutional scholar at Hong Kong University close to the leaders of “Occupy Central with Love and Peace,” one of several protest groups that emerged this summer, described Leung’s statement as “ridiculous.”
“He is saying, ‘I can talk to you only if you understand I can’t recognize any of what you are protesting about," he says. “This man [Leung] is supposed to represent the people of Hong Kong. But what he does is Beijing’s bidding. He is not showing himself to be a voice for the city.”
Mr. Davis said student protest leaders are now debating whether to meet with Leung and “talk freely about their views” or not to meet at all.
The protests are entering their 20th day and tensions remain high as police continue to take down barricades and tents and have been using pepper spray and batons – often in predawn operations. A video of police beating a protester Wednesday went viral and led to the suspension of the officers involved. Sources describe some "protest fatigue" among students, largely because their scattered downtown sit-ins are daily and intensive, unlike the familiar large marches.
'Color revolutions' spook Beijing
The unresolved standoff is a challenge to China, both in terms of image and of fears in the ruling party that the populist revolt could spread. Speaking in Moscow, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang this week compared Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Revolution” to “color revolutions” in places like Ukraine and Tunisia, and blamed the West.
“Some Western nations are now supporting the opposition parties of Hong Kong and their goal is to launch a so-called 'color revolution' in Hong Kong," he told Russian reporters.
The turmoil comes amid the consolidation of power by Chinese President Xi Jinping as a new kind of paramount leader, one less willing to apologize, compromise, or negotiate.
Pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong, which unlike mainland China allows free speech and assembly, say the Basic Law Leung cited today is not set in stone. At various times since the early 1980s the law has been interpreted as granting the city the right to elect its own leader free of interference. They point to a promise by Chinese authorities – after massive street protests between 2003 and 2006 – that the wealthy city-state would be granted “universal suffrage” or one man-one vote by 2017.
In August, China's central government ruled that Hong Kong voters could choose their leader but that only candidates screened by a pro-Beijing committee were eligible. This outraged even many moderates in Hong Kong. Benny Tai, an Occupy Central leader and a law professor, said China was imposing “Iranian-style democracy” on a city that is one of the most cosmopolitan on the planet.
Some see Hong Kong’s barricades as the frontline of a larger battle between democratic and authoritarian value systems. But in Hong Kong it is also seen as a battle over the prospects of future generations, and whether the city can retain its distinct identity – its free press and independent judicial system – or whether it will slowly become, in an oft-repeated phrase, “just another Chinese city.”