In a night of high drama, Hong Kong’s top official agreed at the eleventh hour Thursday to hold discussions with pro-democracy student leaders, a move that may briefly ease a potential showdown between protesters and police.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, also known as C.Y. Leung, said his government would meet with student leaders to discuss their demands for how a 2017 election would be carried out to pick Leung’s successor. Leung made the announcement just before midnight local time Thursday, after which a student group had said it would escalate the protests by occupying government buildings.
Despite that concession, Leung refused to step down Thursday, which several groups had said was a condition for ending the mass demonstrations. Occupy Central, a group that joined the student protest but is more moderate than the students, called the talks “a turning point in the current political stalemate.” Yet it added in a statement that “Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is the one responsible for the stalemate, and he must step down.”
Government officials said the talks might start Saturday instead of Friday. That means major thoroughfares and public spaces would continue to be disrupted as Hong Kong residents return to work after a two-day holiday.
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Protest fatigue clearly had set in Thursday. The crowds were smaller at three main demonstration sites: Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok. Yet given the various factions within the so-called “umbrella movement,” it’s difficult to know whether Thursday’s announcement will discourage the mass protests or give them a boost.
Until the late-night announcement, the chance of further clashes between demonstrators and police seemed high. A large crowd had converged early Thursday morning outside the chief executive’s office in Admiralty, and while the numbers dropped during the day, the crowd swelled at night.
Some protesters attempted to barricade and close a nearby highway, but they were stopped by less confrontational protesters, some of whom linked hands along the road to keep crowds from blocking traffic.
The developments here Thursday came as China ramped up its rhetoric against the protests. That raised fears that Beijing might be making plans to quash the demonstrations, if not immediately, then eventually.
The newspaper People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party, published an editorial Wednesday decrying what it called the “chaos” of the protests, with a vague warning of the potential consequences.
The protesters “have incited the public, paralyzed transportation, disrupted businesses . . . and interfered with the daily lives of Hong Kong people. They should bear the legal responsibilities for their illegal activities,” the editorial said.
“If a few people are determined to go against the rule of law and provoke disturbances, in the end they will reap what they have sown,” it concluded.
Some observers said the commentary recalled similar sentiments expressed in the paper before the Chinese government’s crackdown June 4, 1989, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Some Hong Kong democracy activists said they were concerned but not intimidated.
“I hope it does not come to this,” said Albert Ho Chun-yan, the secretary-general of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, who at 62 has vivid memories of the Tiananmen crackdown, unlike the 20-somethings who have taken to the streets. “But someone my age must be mature enough to consider this possibility.”
Tens of thousands of Hong Kong have rallied every day since Sunday, when local police used pepper spray and tear gas on several hundred student protesters. A core group of demonstrators have peacefully occupied three main parts of the city since then. Each night, their number has swelled as backers and sympathetic tourists stop by to lend support and join in the spectacle.
The demonstrators accuse Beijing of reneging on a 1984 international agreement that promised Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” after it returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. They accuse Beijing of seeking to rig the slate of candidates who can run in a 2017 election for chief executive, the first of its kind for Hong Kong.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with China’s foreign minister Wednesday in Washington and issued a statement supporting universal suffrage in Hong Kong.
“We believe that an open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by rule of law is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity,” said Kerry in his prepared comments.
According to a White House transcript, China’s foreign minister responded that Hong Kong was a Chinese internal concern.
“All countries should respect China’s sovereignty,” Wang Yi said in his comments, through a translator. “I believe for any country, for any society, no one will allow those illegal acts that violate public order. That’s the situation in the United States, and that’s the same situation in Hong Kong.”
Later, the People’s Daily reported Wang as making even stronger comments to U.S. officials.
“The core of the current situation in Hong Kong is that some people have deliberately and illegally gathered in the busiest streets and districts in Hong Kong and severely disrupted social order,” Wang said, according to People’s Daily.
Hong Kong’s protests have closed several thoroughfares and contributed to a drop in tourism and shopping, especially at luxury stores that cater to visitors from mainland China. Several news outlets have reported that China’s tourism board, as of Tuesday, had stopped approving new tour groups to Hong Kong. That may also be contributing to a tourism drop during “Golden Week,” a Chinese national holiday that often is a boom time in Hong Kong for visitors.
Still, it would be hard to describe the scene on the ground as “chaos,” as the People’s Daily did. A phalanx of volunteers have kept protest sites impeccably clean. Few injuries have been reported, and some officials have credited the closure of streets to contributing to improved air quality in the city.