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China Parteitag Kommunistische Partei Politik Zentralkommitee Tiananmen Platz
Image: AP

No real compromise

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
October 21, 2014

Hong Kong's government said it hoped for more talks with pro-democracy protesters following the first formal negotiations. But as China scholar Perry Link tells DW, no compromise on universal suffrage is expected.


Hong Kong's government and student leaders met on October 21 for their first talks after three weeks of pro-democracy protests. But, as widely expected, there was no breakthrough in the negotiations, with Chief Secretary Carrie Lam reiterating the government's position that open nominations were not possible under Hong Kong law. "Hong Kong is not an independent country. It is only a special administrative region within China, and we need to work within the framework set by the National People's Congress," said Lam.

The student leaders, in turn, urged the government to stop treating the decision of the central government on the semi-autonomous region's election rules as "unshakeable." Government negotiators said they hoped for further talks down the line, but student leaders have yet to decide whether or not to hold a second round. Many in Hong Kong are angry at Beijing's refusal to allow genuine universal suffrage in the city in 2017 and have staged protests occupying major traffic arteries of the semi-autonomous region.

In a DW interview, China scholar Perry Link says that while minor progress may be made in future talks which allow both the protesters to save face and the authorities to buy time, there is simply no room for a compromise on the key issue of universal suffrage, as Beijing views the ongoing protests in Hong Kong as a genuine threat to its survival.

Professor Perry Link
Link: 'Beijing views the Hong Kong protests as a genuine threat to its survival'Image: Perry Link

DW: If the student leaders decide to continue negotiations, what do you expect to come out of future talks?

Perry Link: I would expect a stalemate in the talks or, at most, some very minor progress or some promises from the government that postpone the substantive question to future talks. This kind of postponement could be face-saving for the student negotiators, who could say "at least we got something," and for the government it could buy time.

How far do you think both sides are willing to compromise?

Compromise on secondary, tactical issues is possible. By "secondary issues" I mean, for the students, compromises as large as agreeing to a temporary withdrawal from the streets and, for the government, compromises as large as whether to replace [Hong Kong Chief Executive] Mr. C.Y. Leung with some other Beijing-loyalist as chief administrator.

But on the essential issue of whether Hong Kong people will be able to nominate their own candidates for chief administrator in the 2017 elections, I believe there is no room for compromise on either side.

Beginn von Gesprächen in Hongkong
Beijing will not accept real democracy while the students will not accept pretend democracy, says LinkImage: AFP/Getty Images/P. Lopez

Beijing will not accept real democracy, while the students will not accept pretend democracy.

The reason for the Chinese authorities to do so has little to do with Hong Kong itself, and everything to do with the example it would set for the rest of China, as this would show that democracy and Chinese culture do fit together well - despite what the government has been telling its people for many years - and if that idea were to spread in mainland China, the Communist Party's one-party rule would unravel. Beijing views the Hong Kong protests as a genuine threat to its survival.

Some analysts and government insiders recently quoted by the New York Times argue that Beijing is directing broad strokes of the Hong Kong strategy. What is your view on this?

There is no question at all that the broad strokes of the Hong Kong government policy are designed in Beijing, and indeed at the very top in Beijing. It would be naive in the extreme to assume otherwise.

Hong Kong's embattled chief executive has said the city's pro-democracy movement is "out of hand" and being influenced by "external forces" from outside the city. What do you make of this?

This language from C.Y. Leung is a good example of the "broad strokes of policy" that are sent from Beijing to Hong Kong. For decades, the rulers in Beijing have used these same points - that protesters "create turmoil" and are "backed by foreign forces" - in order to try to discredit anyone who presents organized objection to their rule. The pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square - but also the Uighurs, the Tibetans, civil-rights lawyers, environmental activists, and many others - have all heard this language before.

What role is Hong Kong's police force playing in the dispute?

The Hong Kong police of course must obey the broad outlines of what Beijing dictates. That said, the ordinary police on the streets are Hong Kong people. It is natural that they have complex, mixed feelings about the protestors.

What is, in your view, the most likely way out of the current crisis?

In the short term, I think the government will continue its strategy of waiting out the protesters by pretending to talk seriously while continuing with its publicity campaign to discredit the protesters, and I think this strategy will work fairly well.

Beginn von Gesprächen in Hongkong 21.10.2014 Studenten verfolgen die Live-Übertragung
Pro-democracy protestors watched the talks on a video screen near the government headquarters in Hong KongImage: Reuters/Carlos Barria

I think it is likely that the government will try to find, or perhaps manufacture, some "incident" in which the protesters look bad, or to identify a particular "villain" among them, and then use that incident or that villain to distract attention from the main issue and to make themselves seem to be in the right. I make this guess because it is a common pattern that the leaders in Beijing have used elsewhere.

In the long term, I do not think that "waiting out the opposition" will work for Beijing. I think Hong Kong people will get their democracy in the long term.

China scholar Perry Link is Chancellorial Chair Professor for Innovative Teaching Comparative Literature & Foreign Languages in College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, and Emeritus Professor of Asian Studies at Princeton University.

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