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Hong Kong’s chief executive just gave protesters three unappealing choices—and one possible compromise

Reuters/Tyrone Siu
Hong Kong’s chief executive has asked student protesters to meet as early as next week.
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HONG KONG—After almost three weeks of occupying Hong Kong streets, pro-democracy protesters may have gained one small victory today—an audience with the government. In a press conference, chief executive CY Leung said that the government had reached out to student protesters through a middleman this morning about holding talks as soon as next week, after having canceled talks last week. There’s no word yet from the students whether they will agree to meet.

But Leung didn’t give much ground. In describing the framework for the talks, Leung essentially gave the protesters three options, none of which are likely to satisfy their demands for Hong Kong’s citizens to have true universal suffrage, including the right to nominate their own top politician:

1. Accept what you’ve been given

Leung cautioned students to be patient with the electoral reforms announced by Beijing on Aug. 31, and to acknowledge the legal constraints Hong Kong faces as a semi-autonomous Chinese territory. He said that civic nomination, one of the protesters’ demands, is still out of the question, as is the possibility of reversing the decision made by the National People’s Congress that all candidates for the office of chief executive must be approved by a mostly pro-Beijing nominating committee.

Reuters/Tyrone Siu
An Occupy Central protester looks her phone in her tent at a protest site in Admiralty near the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Oct. 16.
Reuters/Carlos Barria
Pro-democracy protesters block an area near the government headquarters building in Hong Kong on Oct. 15.

To prove his point, Leung repeatedly quoted from Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which serves as the territory’s mini-constitution, and urged Western reporters at the press conference to read it themselves. When asked what he would talk about with the protesters, he said he hoped to explore ways the government and the students could find a solution within the confines of the Basic Law and the NPC’s decision. “Politics is the art of the possible, and we have to draw a line between possibilities and impossibilities,” he said, adding: “We don’t find civic nominations in all Western democracies.”

2. Look forward to 2022

Leung asked protesters to look beyond 2017, when chief executive elections are scheduled, and to think of Hong Kong’s democracy as a gradual process: “So [the law] doesn’t say that 2017 is the only and last time that we can change the method of electing chief executive. So if we do it in 2017, we can change it again in 2022…If we don’t do it in 2017, we can try to do it in 2022. So in short, 2017 is not the only and the last time.”

3. Talk about other things that might make you happy

Reuters/Carlos Barria
Hong Kong police spray protesters with pepper spray during clashes on Oct. 16.

Leung said there is no changing Beijing’s decision on electoral reform, but stressed there is room to discuss other options. He said, ”The most constructive thing that the Hong Kong government can offer students is to sit down and listen to the students what we can do together [sic], within the framework [of the NPC decision]…The central authorities have said clearly that they will not retract [their decision]…We would like to explore with them what else we can do.”

The chief executive didn’t appear open to talking about widely criticized police responses to the protesters, such as the use of tear gas in late September, the beating of a local politician during scuffles yesterday, or attacks by thugs and other anti-Occupy groups that critics say the police allowed. Leung said the police had shown “maximum tolerance” in dealing with demonstrators. “We’ve seen positive results of police in clearing road blocks,” he said.

4. Changing the nominating committee

Leung did float one topic that could potentially entice protesters: changing the make-up of the mostly Beijing-appointed nominating committee. “In the second round of consultation, we can still listen to everyone’s views,” he said. “There is still room to discuss issues including the exact formation of the nomination committee.” The students have insisted that changes to the committee won’t be enough, and have publicly insisted on civic nomination. Although unlikely, the possibility that the committee could be reconfigured, potentially allowing non-Beijing approved candidates to make it onto the ballot, might be enough to tempt some of the protest leaders to make the most of their considerable political leverage—and cut a deal.

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