Hong Kong leaders can be 'heroes' or 'villains,' say student protesters

Students met with Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's No. 2, in talks broadcast on big screens around the city. Ms. Lam said the government would pass on the grievances of the Occupy Central movement to Beijing.

Vincent Yu/AP
Pro-democracy protesters cheer as they listen to a student leader during a live TV showing talks between Hong Kong government officials and students at an occupied area outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong's Admiralty district Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014.

After nearly four weeks of mass pro-democracy protests that have captured world attention, the Hong Kong government Tuesday held the first face-to-face talks with student leaders of the “Umbrella Movement” – as the demonstrations are known.

A nearly two-hour meeting between Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s second-highest office holder, and five student representatives was streamed live in the evening, with a simultaneous translation into English. The event transfixed the city, and was projected on large screens erected at main protest areas on thoroughfares where crowds mostly cheered students and jeered Ms. Lam, whom they characterized as representing a future of “fake” democracy.

Student leader Alex Chow, sitting across from Lam, said city officials “can now decide whether to be democratic heroes or historical villains.... I believe every Hong Kong citizen is waiting to see."  

Lam sat with four colleagues and said, “The students' voices and demands have been clearly heard by the special administrative region government, Hong Kong society, and the central government."

Neither Lam nor Chow ruled out further talks.

The talks are unlikely to have any immediate political effect but are seen by many analysts as notable for two reasons:

• First, that they happened at all, given the intractability of China’s position on protesters' demands for full and unfettered elections in Hong Kong in 2017, and for the resignation of the city’s Beijing-selected leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

• Second, that the Hong Kong government said it would officially inform Beijing of the views expressed in the city, including those of the students, since the Occupy Central street actions began. Hong Kong officials have come under increased criticism for appearing only to represent China’s views to Hong Kong's people – but not representing the citizens of Hong Kong to the government in Beijing.

The British turned over its former colony to China in 1997 to be governed under a formula known as “one country-two systems” that allows Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” – though what that means is under terrific dispute.

Tuesday's talks took place in an atmosphere charged by controversy after Chief Executive Leung (known by his initials “CY”) told three overseas news organizations that the interests of wealthy Hong Kong citizens needed special protection, and that people who earn roughly $4 an hour – the minimum wage earned by half the population of seven million in one of the most expensive cities in the world – could not have universal suffrage because it would lead to what Mr. Leung called instability and “populism.”

“If it’s entirely a numbers game – numeric representation – then obviously you’d be talking to half the people in Hong Kong [who] earn less than" minimum wage, he said. “You would end up with that kind of politics and policies.”

Tonight’s repartee between students and Hong Kong officials often veered into the issue of a wealth gap.

While the protest is a citizen push for a government not dominated by Beijing, it is also powerfully informed by long-time sentiments that the gap between rich and poor has widened to an unsustainable degree and is potentially destabilizing. Blame is pointed at a city run by a relative handful of tycoons, financiers, industrialists and, increasingly, mainland-based corporations.

Leung’s interview statements Tuesday echoed a top mainland legal scholar and Beijing adviser Wang Zhengmin, who told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in August that a Communist Party-led system must represent the interest of all major sectors of society, especially the rich.

"Universal suffrage means redistribution of economic interests,“ said Mr. Wang, dean of Tsinghua University law school. “We have to take care of every class, every group of people, every person, the rich and the poor. "No one should be left behind … especially those whose slice of pie will be shared with others upon implementation of universal suffrage, which is the business community."

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