Last night at 6pm local time, five representatives from Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters met with five government officials to discuss the protesters' demands. The meeting, broadcast live, was exceedingly polite and civil. But in the end, none of the protesters' demands were met. The meetings were always presented by the Hong Kong Government as a dialogue, not a negotiation, and indeed, while the territory does have considerable freedoms, the Hong Kong Government is in no position to negotiate on decisions made in Beijing.
Protesters have been on the streets in Hong Kong for four weeks, demanding the resignation of the Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung, and the rescinding of the 31 August decision by the National People's Congress in Beijing stipulating that candidates for the 2017 elections in Hong Kong would be screened by a committee of 1200 pre-selected people to ensure they 'loved China and loved Hong Kong'.
While these demands seem to be falling on deaf ears, there have been clues dropped by Leung and his deputy Carrie Lam that space might exist for change in the make-up of the Election Committee, and this seems the most likely direction for discussions from here. Hong Kong's Basic Law, a kind of mini-constitution for the Special Administrative Region, states that 'the Chief Executive shall be elected by a broadly representative Election Committee in accordance with this Law and appointed by the Central People's Government.'
In 2012, the 1193 members of the Election Committee decided among three candidates. CY Leung, a pro-Beijing candidate, won 57.4% of the votes, defeating pro-Beijing Henry Tang with 23.8%, and Albert Ho, a pro-democracy candidate, who won only 6.3%.
The decision by Beijing in August to allow full suffrage in Hong Kong to elect the Chief Executive from a pool chosen by the Election Committee does therefore represent a significant step. However, protesters feel that the August decision demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of Hong Kongers' sentiments about achieving universal suffrage, a promise central to the handover from the UK to China in 1997. Reflecting this, at the meeting last night, Hong Kong Government representatives offered to provide a new report to the Chinese State Council setting out protesters' concerns, as a basis for future considerations of the Basic Law.
The protesters are unlikely to find this satisfactory — the Chinese State Council did not make the initial decision, and it does not have the power to change it. Nor would such a report likely have any impact on the 2017 elections. It could have some influence further down the line, but only insofar as Beijing sees making revisions as best supporting Communist Party interests. In China, the constitution is understood as an instrument to be used by the Communist Party in ruling, rather than an external and apolitical set of norms which governs the Party.
Where there may be some space for change is in the make-up of the Election Committee.
Leung and Lam have both mentioned that it may be possible to reconsider how the Election Committee is chosen, and who is on it. The Election Committee is reviewed every five years, in line with the Chief Executive's term in office. As it stands now, Election Committee members are themselves elected by a small proportion of Hong Kong's population, around 200,000 out of seven million. The Committee is regularly reviewed and changes have been made in the past, so this seems the most likely avenue for addressing protesters' concerns in a way that does not fundamentally challenge existing governance arrangements.
The importance of last night's meeting should not be underestimated; a publicly broadcast discussion between high-ranking government officials and young protesters is highly unusual in China. However, it does not mean that the pro-democracy protesters are getting any closer to achieving their central demands. Beijing was never going to change its mind on its 31 August decision, but neither does it want to see violent unrest in Hong Kong.
From Beijing's point of view, the protesters need to understand that both aspects of the 'one country, two systems' formulation are equally important. Since the patriotic education campaign launched after the Tiananmen events in 1989, most average mainland Chinese people have internalised the understanding that challenging the Chinese Communist Party's authority is not only futile but ultimately undesirable. It seems the Chinese authorities are presuming that, over time, this will become equally true of Hong Kong.
The question now is whether last night's discussions, along with the possibility of changes to the Election Committee, will ameliorate tensions in Hong Kong or inspire more dissatisfaction among pro-democracy activists. It will be difficult for protesters to maintain public support for disruption, given the protests have already been underway for four weeks. Additionally, last night's meeting puts forward an image of a benign and open-minded government that is willing to listen, and thus not an appropriate target of violence or illegal activities. This, combined with the weight of the Chinese Communist Party's narrative of immutability, may yet quietly smother the flames of dissent.
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