Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Talks begin as Hong Kong protests lose steam

Talks between Hong Kong protestors and government officials are scheduled to begin today as momentum slows for the pro-democracy groups.

The discussions between the government in Hong Kong and student protest groups will be broadcast live. However, no representative from the Chinese Central Government will reportedly be present at the talks.

Despite calls from student groups for the Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying to step down and for the city-state’s elections set for 2017 to be more democratic, the protestors rely on the inclusion of Beijing in the talks to effect any lasting impact.
If no representative from Beijing attends the talks, it will effectively put a bow on the protests as they wind down due to lack of popular support and a refusal from the Hong Kong and central Chinese governments to compromise with student demands.

New Zealand Asia Institute research fellow Xin Chen says even if the negotiations make some progress, it’s not clear whether all the competing voices of the Hong Kong student protest groups will agree with the outcome.

“If the demonstrators continue to insist on the Hong Kong CEO resigning, or that the central government must agree to this or that demand, it will be very difficult to reach an agreement,” Ms Chen says.

Loss of momentum

A wider sense of pessimism about the Occupy Central movement is growing across the city-state. After minor clashes between demonstrators and police over the weekend, many local businesses and large corporates now prefer the barricades and students to be cleared from the streets.

University of Auckland China expert Stephen Noakes isn’t certain the movement ever really had broad support from the Hong Kong populace at all.

“Early on, it appeared to be a noisy minority which was able to garner some sympathy. But folks have had their patience run out with the protests.

“Once I saw on social media last week that a lot of the occupied areas were clearing out, my assumption at that point was that as a news item, the story was over. That’s obviously turned out not to be quite true. I’m surprised the story has stayed alive as long as it has,” Mr Noakes says.

The core issue for the protestors was likely never strictly about democracy and the 2017 elections.

Hong Kong is a dynamic city with many similar social issues affecting large groups of people anywhere on earth. Democracy concerns stirred the current protest fire, but significant economic inequalities also worry many students and citizens.

Ms Chen says Hong Kongers feel they haven’t had access to the same level of economic improvement since the city-state reverted back to Chinese control in 1997.

“Whether there’s democracy or not, both Hong Kong and the central government will have to deal with this inequality otherwise the problems will continue,” she says.

Mr Noakes also think the inequalities in Hong Kong need attention from Beijing.
“I think [these protests] are a very convenient vehicle for people to get out in the street demonstrating against other things. Hong Kong is a much less materially equal place than people might think. It’s not all glittering high-rises.

“The role of the movement and the motivations of the protest figures are still unclear. It doesn’t seem to be about Occupy Central any more but the protestors, and that could mean a lot of different things,” he says.

Beijing watching the unrest closely

From Beijing’s perspective, the protests in Hong Kong don’t appear to have spilled over into mainland China – which the central government would have been monitoring closely. The issues espoused on the streets of the city-state have remained local, as all politics inevitably is.

“Beijing is worried each time there is a large scale demonstration because no one knows when those events end or what it will lead to,” Ms Chen says.

Ms Chen says the Chinese culture more or less demands a strong state and government. So if demonstrations like the one in Hong Kong last for a long time, it can be interpreted as though the government is weak.

But there are reasons for citizen trepidation. China’s central government deals with thousands of legitimate and recognised protests in the country each year, and the Asian heavyweight is transitioning to a new economic model which may have varying levels of success.

There are underlying currents of political unrest in China which tend to focus the attention of Beijing’s planners, but it would be a mistake, says Mr Noakes, to draw the conclusion that after the Hong Kong protests the central government is unpopular.

“What we do know is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) enjoys high popular legitimacy. To presume that this movement will take root on the mainland and that democracy was coming was to seriously misread the national mood.

“As for it becoming a mass movement that shook the foundations of the CPP, I don’t see it. It never had quite the same feel to it as June of 1989 [Tiananmen Square] did,” he says.

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