Talks were scheduled between the Hong Kong government and the protesters. They were held. Yet, so far, they have failed. Everyone expected it: when the administration led by Chief Executive C. Y. Leung called for discussions last week, it was immediately clear that a deal would be hard to reach.
The Chief Executive himself shut the door on the most relevant discussion point: universal suffrage. As he called for talks, he also told the public that anything that will be agreed upon needs to be “based on the Basic Law and the decision by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee”. “There is no issue of making a compromise or not,” Mr. Leung said. “We can’t turn something unlawful into [something] lawful.” In an interview reported by the Wall Street Journal, he conceded that “There could be a compromise somewhere in between by making the nominating committee more acceptable to the students.”
This is not the first time that talks have been suggested; authorities agreed to listen to the protesters’ demands two weeks ago. However, as the number of sit-ins began to diminish, the meeting was called off. This decision ignited a large rally on Oct. 10, and gave further substantiation to public belief that authorities are simply trying to lure them away from the streets.
Furthermore, Mr. Leung made an insensitive mistake when he warned foreign media that “If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you’d be talking to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month.”
Consider his audience: mostly students and middle-class citizens who are dissatisfied with the city’s economic development. Many could well fall in the ‘less-than-US$1,800-a-month’ category. To put it simply, the Chief Executive hinted that a functional democracy – something his administration does not or cannot support – might give voice precisely to those who are asking for change. Not a compromising position and, especially, hardly something one should emphasise before an angry crowd.
Against such background, it is no surprise that protesters feel little optimism. Most think that talks will go nowhere, or will pave the way only for minor concessions. “I do not feel optimistic,” a woman told us last week, when authorities accepted to hold a meeting. “I think they will just try to distract the public’s attention.” Another protester thought that “things won’t change after the talk.”
The government might be trying to buy time while hoping for the best. On one hand, local authorities cannot challenge the central leadership and the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s ruling. On the other hand, they would have a hard time clearing the protests with force: every time they tried to impose their will – in Mongkok, in Admiralty, after the clashes on Lung Wo Road – they ended up having more people joining the crowd, many saying they did so because they were indignant at the behavior of the police.
All of the aforementioned issues and incidents lead to one question: what is the administration waiting for? Support for the protesters decreasing and tiredness increasing, perhaps. Yet a recent survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong shows that sympathy for the Umbrella Movement has grown rather than diminished during the past month. “The level of support grew 6.7 percentage points from a poll a month earlier, and opposition shrank by 10.8 percentage points,” the South China Morning Post quoted from the survey. By those standards, it may take a long time before this impasse is over.
The outcome authorities may be hoping for could instead be dependent on meteorological developments. The weather has been clement for the students so far: almost no rain; very little wind; warm temperatures. As the season changes and thermometers plunge, it will be much harder to sleep in the open and sit outside.
A more extreme climate might yield even better results for the anti-Occupy faction. It is typhoon season in Hong Kong: only one such disturbance would sweep away the occupiers’ tents, force protesters to look for shelter and soak their equipment. Put simply, it would do the dirty work on behalf of the authorities, leaving no one to blame for it.