Government officials in Hong Kong opened talks Tuesday with student leaders of pro-democracy protests that have paralyzed parts of the semi-autonomous Chinese city for more than three weeks, but the discussions produced no major breakthrough.
The government representatives said they would be open to submitting a new report to Beijing about the city’s pro-democracy movement. And they suggested it would be possible to negotiate details about the nomination committee that China’s Communist leaders insist must screen candidates for the 2017 election for Hong Kong’s chief executive.
But the government showed no signs of pushing Beijing to consider protester demands for a framework that would allow a more open nomination system.
The meeting, which lasted about two hours, brought together government officials and five representatives of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, led by 23-year-old Alex Chow. It was held at a university with no audience present, although the discussion was broadcast live to crowds at protest sites.
If viewers looked at only one side of the room, they might have mistaken it for a high school debate team practice. The student representatives wore black T-shirts with “Freedom Now!” printed across the fronts. A row of dark suits faced them from across the room.
Moderated by Lingnan University President Leonard Cheng, the talk at times veered heavily into legalese.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying did not participate; the most senior official to take part was his deputy, Carrie Lam. She emphasized that the 2017 chief executive election was not the end of the road for Hong Kong’s democratic process and said that the government would explore setting up a platform to discuss views on electoral reform for 2022 and beyond.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a framework known as “one country, two systems.” It was supposed to enjoy substantial autonomy for 50 years under a joint agreement between Britain and China.
Student leaders, who had been coached by a team of lawyers, listed their complaints systematically, arguing that the public felt forced to come out into the streets because the government was controlled by the business elite and had neglected the city’s problems, including a vast and growing income inequality.
As the talks wrapped up, student leader Lester Shum said his side was not satisfied.
“We want this government to show us commitment and the courage to resolve this. It’s been 1 hour and 45 minutes and the only message is that the government wants us to just pocket what is on the table. Just keep to the framework imposed by [Beijing] and accept what we are actually against,” he said.
“You ask students of the federation, people of the street, to make concessions. But we ask the question here: Isn’t it true that young people have already made concessions?” he added. “People have sacrificed their time, their studies, they are willing to sacrifice their careers, their freedom, for a simple right -- an equal and basic political right, that is the nominating rights, the electing rights, and the right to be elected.”
After the talks, Chow visited protesters camping near government headquarters in the Admiralty district and said he would continue protesting until the government responds to the people’s requests. He urged demonstrators to stay with him.
Michael Davis, a Hong Kong University law professor who has followed the protest movement closely, said he didn’t see a “winner” emerging from the talks.
“I don’t think you’d change sides” after watching the discussion, said Davis. “Basically they argued over whether the government was representing Hong Kong people adequately. The students said the government had misrepresented Hong Kong’s views [to Beijing] and showed no courage to stand up for people, and the government was claiming it has represented Hong Kong people.”
Heading into the talks, both sides had agreed to hold more than one round of conversations, but no date for the next discussions was immediately announced.
During the discussion, the government representatives repeatedly said it was necessary to work within the framework handed down Aug. 31 by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. That framework calls for a 1,200-member committee to screen candidates for chief executive; the committee is widely expected to be stacked with Beijing loyalists.
They stated that the Basic Law, which outlines terms of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, does not allow for the kind of civil nominating system the students have been seeking.
Yvonne Leung, one of the student representatives, argued: “Laws can be amended; that’s the point we’ve been stressing all along.”
But Hong Kong’s secretary for justice, Rimsky Yuen, said that was unrealistic, saying: “Between now and 2017, it would be impossible for us to amend the Basic Law.”
“I think the students performed very well this time,” said Che-po Chan, Lingnan University assistant professor of political science who has researched Chinese youth politics and voting in Hong Kong. “The government wants to discuss the issue in terms of a legal framework, but [the students] raised it to a high level and said this is a political issue and it needs to be solved in a political way.”
After the broadcast, many protesters expressed disappointment, saying they expected that the government’s pledge to make a new report to China’s State Council would have little effect. Others questioned why the government refused to amend its initial report to the National People’s Congress. Doing that, in theory, could prompt the body to reconsider its Aug. 31 pronouncement.
“The government is still lying. They said they will submit a new report. But why don’t they redraw the one that they submitted before and restart the reform process?” said Lo Chi Yin, 59, a construction worker who watched the broadcast from the Admiralty protest zone. “This is the most boring acting I have ever seen.”
“The officials provided no details on the report, and none offered any solutions that would help solve the problem,” said a 27-year-old engineer who gave his name only as Ken at a sit-in site in the Mong Kok neighborhood. “The officials are just playing with words, and repeated what they had said. But the student group did give voice to our demands.”
Ting Ting, a 20-year-old student, complained that the government did not say whether its new report “would include our demands, such as civil nomination.”
“Hong Kong people need true democracy, but what they offer is just what they think democracy would be. I think the officials know nothing about democracy at all.”
But Chan, the Lingnan professor, said the talks were not a failure and appeared to be moving the situation toward some kind of compromise.
“They’re just giving their basic standpoints, but I think that this is a good start because first the government side has expressed some good wishes. This is a surprise to most of us that they will give an additional report to the central government,” Chan said.
“What is most possible right now is the restrictions that the Chinese government did not rule out such as to expand the membership of the nomination committee” for the 2017 election, Chan said. “That is the most possible point of negotiation.”
Ap and Hui are special correspondents. Times staff writer Makinen reported from Beijing.
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