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While Protesters and Officials Talk, Hong Kong's Leader Believes the City Is Too Poor for Direct Elections

Students mounted a constitutional critique of the government's acceptance of a plan limiting democracy a day after the city's leader insisted poor voters would dominate free elections.
October 21, 2014, 10:14pm
Photo via AP/Kin Cheung

Hong Kong's student leaders came prepared for their televised face-off with top officials on Tuesday.

Five government officials excluding Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying met with representatives from the Hong Kong Federation of Students in a two-hour talk moderated by the president of Lingnan University and broadcast live to assemblies at protest sites across the city.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, the city's second-highest ranking official, reiterated that the decision made by the National People's Congress Standing Committee on August 31 requiring that a nominating committee approve candidates for chief executive cannot be revoked, but the limits Beijing imposed on the terms for universal suffrage in the next chief executive election in 2017 don't have to be permanent.

Under the new plan, three Beijing-vetted candidates would each need the support of half of the nomination committee's members to run, instead of the previous support threshold of one-eighth for eight candidates.

Wearing black T-shirts adorned with the slogan "Freedom Now," the university students debunked the government's usual insistence that introducing this limited form of universal suffrage to the territory is a major step forward.

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Yvonne Leung, president of the Hong Kong University students' union, questioned the constitutional basis of Beijing's August 31 decision. The student panel also found fault in the Hong Kong government's electoral reform report to Beijing in July, which purported to represent the "mainstream opinion" of the city's voters following a five-month public consultation.

Students are not the first to question the constitutionality of Beijing's decision. Back in July, the Hong Kong Bar Association warned that the Hong Kong government will "misuse and abuse the rule of law" if it rejected the protesters' demand to have free elections without exploring whether their rationale — which is to "ensure maximum [public] participation" in the nomination process — is incompatible with the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini constitution.

Leung Chun-ying himself bluntly dismissed public participation on Monday evening when he remarked that a more direct election would skew government policies towards serving poorer residents and neglect other sectors and classes, including the corporate elite.

"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 $1,800 a month," he said, suggesting that full democracy would compel the candidates to cater to the poor masses.

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After the so-called "dialogue," student representatives told the cheering crowd in Admiralty that they had no idea what the government was saying. They plan on remaining in the streets, despite orders from the High Court to disperse protesters in Admiralty and Mong Kok.

The interim injunctions were granted to the associations of taxi drivers and minibus operators, and to the owner of a commercial building. Occupiers may be held in contempt for court if they failed to comply with the orders.

The court orders came before the scheduled talk and right after the police's clearance operation over the weekend in Mong Kok, where sporadic clashes took place between protesters and front-line officers and a number of people were injured. Chief superintendent Steve Hui of the police declared Mong Kok a high-risk area "on the verge of riot," noting that "radical troublemakers" who have upgraded to helmets from umbrellas and goggles have made attempts to charge police cordons.

Despite the definitive nature of Beijing's decision, Carrie Lam noted during the talk that the government is willing to present another report to Beijing about the protests and occupations that have dominated Hong Kong over the past three weeks and communicate the protesters' demands — as though three weeks of incessant demonstrations weren't enough communication. Lam also advised protesters to channel their energy from resistance to thinking up creative ways to make the system more democratic, transparent and competitive under Beijing's stringent limits.

The students, meanwhile, are ever more insistent that the Hong Kong government's deference to Beijing is irresponsible and stands in the way of progress.

Follow Elaine Yu on Twitter: @yuenok