Thursday 20 June 2019

No agreement during Hong Kong talks

Pro-democracy protesters watch a TV showing talks between Hong Kong government officials and students (AP)
Pro-democracy protesters watch a TV showing talks between Hong Kong government officials and students (AP)

Hong Kong student leaders and government officials talked but agreed on little as the city's Beijing-backed leader reaffirmed his unwillingness to compromise on the key demand of activists camped in the streets for a fourth week.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told reporters that the government will not let the public nominate candidates to run in inaugural direct elections to succeed him in 2017, as demanded by thousands of protesters camping out on main streets across the city. But he added that there is room to discuss how to form the key 1,200-member nominating committee.

Mr Leung said such changes could be covered in a second round of consultations over the next several months.

"How we should elect the 1,200 so that the nominating committee will be broadly representative - there's room for discussion there," Mr Leung said. "There's room to make the nominating committee more democratic, and this is one of the things we very much want to talk to not just the students but the community at large about."

Soon after Mr Leung spoke to the Associated Press and three other news agencies, top officials from his government began much-awaited, televised talks with student leaders.

In opening remarks, student leader Alex Chow said that an August decision by China's legislature ruling out so-called civil nomination has "emasculated" Hong Kong.

"We don't want anointment," said Mr Chow, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of three groups leading the protests.

Mr Chow and four other student leaders, wearing black T-shirts that said Freedom Now!, faced off against five senior government officials in dark suits across a U-shaped table.

Mr Chow also took aim at Mr Leung's comments on Monday that Hong Kong should not have broader democracy because the poor would have too much say in setting policies in the Asian financial hub.

Mr Leung's remarks to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times underlined how protesters' concerns have been fuelled by discontent over soaring inequality in the former British colony.

"An unequal nominating committee is no good for the wealth gap in Hong Kong," Mr Chow said. "Should it continue to serve business conglomerates, won't it continue to deprive the political rights of the one million people living in poverty?"

The officials stuck to the government line that Hong Kong's mini-constitution cannot be amended to accommodate protesters' demands, while also saying that many others do not share their views.

"We hope you would understand that there are a lot of people who are not in Mong Kok, who are not in Admiralty. There are many people at home who aren't insisting on civil nomination," said justice secretary Rimsky Yuen.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, the government's No 2 official, repeatedly chided the students for being "idealistic" rather than "pragmatic".

Both sides showed little willingness to compromise, and further talks were expected.

Thousands of people intently watched the meeting on giant screens in the main protest area in Admiralty, on a highway next to city government headquarters. They cheered student leaders who criticised the government intransigence's and booed Ms Lam when she commended police for exercising restraint.

Police armed with pepper spray and batons have clashed violently in recent days with protesters armed with umbrellas and goggles in the blue-collar district of Mong Kok over control of the streets. Nearly 300 people have been injured since the protest began.

The protesters heaped on more boos when the screens went black after the talks ended, reflecting what several said was their overall disappointment with the meeting.

"The government didn't do anything," said Alex Chan, a 40-year-old technology consultant. "But it's only the start, the first time. Everybody has to find a way to end this situation."

Val Chow, a 30-year-old museum employee, said protesters would now have to dig in for the long haul. She has been visiting the protest site after work every night to support a friend camped out there and other demonstrators.

"They won't leave at this moment because the government didn't give us a reason to go," she said. "This is not going to stop."

Mr Leung said one obstacle to resolving the conflict is a lack of consensus among the protesters as to what would end the street occupation.

He said the government could consider changes such as replacing corporate votes with individual ballots in the nominating committee, as suggested by former chief secretary Anson Chan.

The nominating committee is likely to be similar to a panel that picked Mr Leung in 2012 to be Hong Kong's leader. Those panellists were chosen by business groups, professional bodies and political elites.

As to a time for clearing the demonstrators, Mr Leung said that would be determined by the situation on the street.

"It is a question of us having a duty to prevent and stop clashes from happening," Mr Leung said. "Patience within the community is running very thin."

Mr Leung refused to answer in detail several questions about the possible role of central Chinese authorities in managing the crisis, only saying: "We don't have any instruction from Beijing about when and how we clear these streets."

Press Association

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