Hong Kong leader indicates possible concession as student-government talks start

The panel chosen to pick candidates for Hong Kong's 2017 election

Hong Kong: The panel chosen to pick candidates for Hong Kong's 2017 election could be made "more democratic", the territory's leader said on Tuesday, the first indication of a possible concession to pro-democracy protesters who have blocked city streets for weeks.

Leung Chun-ying was talking just hours before formal talks got under way between student protest leaders and city officials aimed at defusing the crisis in the former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

"There's room for discussion there," he told reporters. "There's room to make the nominating committee more democratic."

In August, Communist Party rulers in Beijing offered Hong Kong people the chance to vote for their own leader in 2017, but said only two to three candidates could run after getting majority backing from a 1,200-person nominating committee, which is widely expected to be stacked with Beijing loyalists.

The protesters decry this as "fake" Chinese-style democracy and say they won't leave the streets unless Beijing allows open nominations.

Discussion of the injection of more democracy into the formation of the nominating committee could only start later in the year when the city government launches a new round of consultations for electoral methods, Leung told reporters in a conference room in his office building.

After more than three weeks of demonstrations that have snarled traffic, and mostly tough talk from Leung and other government officials, expectations are low for a major breakthrough in Tuesday's talks.

Three large screens and projectors were set up at the tent-strewn main protest site on a thoroughfare in the Admiralty district, next to the government offices. Thousands of people jammed around them to watch the dialogue, with periodic cheering during the opening remarks by student leader Alex Chow and jeering when Chief Secretary Carrie Lam spoke.

"The students' voices and demands have been clearly heard by the special administrative region government, Hong Kong society and the central government," said Lam, seated on one side of a U-shaped table with four colleagues facing an equal number student leaders wearing black t-shirts.

"But no matter how high the ideals, they must be strived for through legal, appropriate and rational means."

For their part, the students urged the government to build trust by putting forward a "realistic and feasible" timetable and roadmap for democratic development.

"The Hong Kong government is in the best position to get the people of Hong Kong to go home (and end the protests)," said Chow.

China's CCTV showed the talks live, but only the government officials, not the students.

The protests have sparked occasional scuffles between demonstrators and the police, who once fired tear gas on the crowd and have also used pepper spray and batons, but have not attempted to clear the streets.

Leung told reporters, however, that such action "could take place whenever the police see it as necessary. It is their duty to maintain law and order in Hong Kong.

"We are not tying the dialogue with the students to police actions ... we have never said that while dialogues go on – and there will probably be several rounds of dialogue with the students – the police will not carry out necessary actions."

Leung, who was not taking part in the talks with students, declined to say if there was a deadline for clearing the protesters from city streets and said the government did not have "any instructions from Beijing".

But he said he believed that people of Hong Kong were losing patience.


In blunt remarks on Monday that could inflame students, Leung told some foreign media that free elections were unacceptable partly because they risked giving Hong Kong's poor and working class a dominant voice in politics.

"If it's entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month," Leung told the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

"Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies," added Leung, warning of the dangers of populism and insisting that the electoral system needed to protect minority groups.

Critics say the political system already favors the rich in Hong Kong, which has one of the biggest wealth gaps in Asia and where the vast majority of people cannot afford their own home.

The government canceled talks scheduled for earlier this month after the students called for the protests to expand. Hong Kong's streets have been calm after dozens of people were injured in two nights of clashes over the weekend in the Mong Kok shopping district, including 22 police.

Besides Mong Kok, where demonstrators remain, about 1,000 protesters are camped out at the headquarters of the civil disobedience "Occupy" movement at Admiralty in a sea of tents on an eight-lane highway beneath skyscrapers close to government headquarters.

Hong Kong is ruled under a "one country, two systems" formula that allows it wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms and specifies universal suffrage as an eventual goal. But Beijing is wary about copycat demands for reform on the mainland. Leung told the foreign newspapers that Hong Kong had been "lucky" that Beijing had not yet felt the need to intervene.

The Hong Kong leader appears hamstrung, unable to compromise because of the message that would send to Chinese on the mainland, while using more force would likely only galvanize the protests.

( Source : reuters )
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