Huge numbers of Hong Kong people were transfixed by their televisions and devices Tuesday night local time, as they followed the live broadcast of a historic, two-hour meeting between black-clad rebel students and suited officials.
More than any other event in the three weeks of pro-democracy protests that have rocked China’s most international city, the dialog—the government hesitated to call it a negotiation—dramatized the gulf between the generations. It was also a microcosm of the political tension at work within all of China, between a rising, educated generation groping after its political rights, and an older one insistent on withholding them.
On screens and live audio streams, five representatives from the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) represented the sort of young people any nation would be proud to call its own: intelligent, informed and impassioned.
In talks with them were five senior government officials. Two officials remained mute throughout the 120 minutes and were widely mocked on social media for their silence. The others—headed by the government’s number two Carrie Lam—spoke mostly to utter legal sophistries and to tell the students what they have been saying for months: give up your fight and do as Beijing asks, because the decisions that have been made about Hong Kong’s political future cannot be changed.
To the thousands that had gathered at protest sites across the city to watch the talks on big screens, the government looked hopelessly out of touch. While the students addressed the officials formally, the officials called the students by their first names—in a move that Lam defended as friendliness, but which the Twitterverse found highly condescending.
It also didn’t help that the officials were speaking the day after Hong Kong’s patrician leader, Leung Chun-ying, made an appalling gaffe in front of foreign media, when he said that free elections in Hong Kong would allow those from lower-income groups to dominate the polls. (He later released a statement attempting to qualify his comments as springing from concern for social minorities, which probably made things worse.)
The central government says that it will allow Hong Kong’s 3.5 million voters to elect Leung’s successor in 2017 but insists that voters choose from a field of no more than three candidates, all screened by a pro-establishment committee. To the students, this is a nonstarter and it is the reason that thousands of them and their supporters have been occupying key areas of downtown Hong Kong for the past 24 days. Their protest has seen dozens injured, perhaps hundreds, in clashes with police and shady groups of thugs, and has become the most politically consequential movement on Chinese soil since the 1989 occupation of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
“What do we want?” asked HKFS deputy Lester Shum during the talks. “The right to vote; the right to be voted and voter, equally. Now the government is only telling us to pack up and go home.”
The officials, visibly uncomfortable at being brought to the table by a group of articulate twenty-somethings fresh from the barricades, offered modest concessions—more time to work out nomination procedures, more time to take soundings on Hong Kong’s long term constitutional development. Perhaps the submission of another report to Beijing.
“The 2017 [election] is not the destination,” said Chief Secretary Lam in conciliatory fashion. “We can still improve the system for [the next election in] 2022. If all the public opinion being expressed can be recorded and reflected to the central government, it will be good for democratic development.”
But it sounded like the administration was buying time and they were called on it at several points. “It is the Hong Kong government who is giving up its responsibility,” said HKFS delegate Yvonne Leung. “It has the constitutional duty to fight for a democratic reform proposal for Hong Kong.”
Large numbers of police officers were deployed on the streets in case trouble flared following the debate. But while the rest of the night appeared to pass peacefully, there is a fear that greater unrest in the coming weeks is all but a certainty, now that the chasm between the protesters’ position and the government’s is so woefully apparent. Lam’s concluding remarks bore the faint augury of difficulties ahead.
“I hope you have the courage and wisdom to think of a way out of the current situation,” she said, sounding unintentionally ominous. “I hope you share the responsibility with us.”
Out on the street, Ivan Tsang, 23, an office assistant, spoke for many when he urged protesters to ramp up their campaign. “Overall [the students] represented me and I respect that,” he said. “But I believe we need to make our actions more aggressive so the government will listen.”
Nick Lee, 24, a cook living in the blue-collar district of Mong Kok, where some of the worst clashes have taken place, said: “[Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying] thinks he cannot give more power to the people, but I should have the power, not him.”
Michael Davis, professor of law at Hong Kong University, said that the government had given the protesters no reason to leave the streets. “The government doesn’t seem committed to do anything,” he said. “They only hinted they might file this supplementary report.”
What is certain is that the students came out best from the talks, shoring up their popularity before a large television audience that doubtless, until tonight, contained many undecided viewers.
“I don’t know what the next plan is” said Dora Ngan, 19, who watched the debate on a large screen at the teeming Causeway Bay shopping district. “But I will follow the student leaders.”
—With reporting by Elizabeth Barber, Charlie Campbell, Rishi Iyengar, Per Liljas and David Stout. Video by Helen Regan / Hong Kong