вторник, 21 октября 2014 г.

After weeks of clashes, Hong Kong takes time out to debate political showdown

By William Wan and Brian Murphy



BEIJING – Hong Kong’s political showdowns shifted Tuesday from the streets to a drab university hall as protest leaders faced off with government officials in a prime-time debate with sweeping discourse but few hints of concessions from either side.

The two-hour session — by turns nerdy, riveting, wildly philosophical and dense with legalese — acted as a breather for a city on edge after more than three weeks of unrest that began over opposition to China’s sway over Hong Kong elections.

Every moment of the debate was closely watched; every phrase and inflection parsed for nuance and subtext as the back-and-forth was broadcast live on TV and streamed over the Web.

In the end, each side emphasized a different spin.

Hong Kong leaders said it was a first step in dialogue to end a crisis that has paralyzed major districts and turned some of the world’s most expensive real estate into riot zones. Pro-democracy protesters saw mostly disappointment as authorities refused to yield any significant ground.

“If the government doesn’t plan to give something, I will continue to stay’’ on the streets, said Felix Choi, a 21-year-old university student, before the debate. “I think this dialogue will not have any results.”

Although the protests began over Chinese-imposed election rules, they have touched on deeper questions: pitting Beijing’s authority against demonstrators’ demands for greater latitude to chart the political course in the former British colony.

“This is not a competition tonight,” said Hong Kong’s chief civil servant, Carrie Lam, to open the debate. “There is no losing or winning.”

But that was not how it was seen among many protesters, who expressed deep pessimism about what — if any -- effect the carefully staged event would have on the stalemate.
Police fanned out across protest sites, where hundreds gathered to follow the debate live on mobile phones.

Hong Kong media reported that the five students representing protesters in the debate had holed up in cram sessions for several nights. They were coached by an impressive roster of elder statesmen in Hong Kong’s pro-democratic circles, including a former justice secretary.

The demands of the protesters are well known: Seeking to have Beijing roll back plans to vet candidates for 2017 elections in Hong Kong and allow voters to pick their own leader, who operates under Chinese authorities but still wields considerable influence.

The demonstrators also want China to allow Hong Kong more general autonomy from China’s tight political controls.

The five student representatives divvied up debate duties in a well-organized fashion, ticking off their grievances one by one.

Hong Kong representatives met their points gamely, but also struck a slightly patronizing tone at times — praising students for doing their “homework” on constitutional law. In one limited concession, Lam said Hong Kong officials were willing to submit a report to Beijing outlining the views from the protests and its “far-reaching implications”

The debate also was a chance for the protesters to try to win over residents who have been uneasy about the demonstrators’ methods of blocking streets and confronting authorities in the normally efficient and highly organized city.

The student-led protesters continued to hold their ground despite attempts by police to disperse them overnight.
Dozens have been injured in sporadic clashes between police — using batons and pepper sprays — and students often armed only with umbrellas, which have become a symbol of the pro-democracy movement.

The crackdowns also have moved to the online world, which has become a key element in organizing the protests. On Monday, a 23-year-old man was arrested on charges of using social media to encourage protests in the congested Mong Kok district and urging crowds “to charge at police and to paralyze the railways.’’

China has used state media editorials and statements from its foreign ministry to insist that the protests are being driven by unnamed foreign forces — a claim protesters have dismissed.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying repeated Tuesday that “external forces” are behind the student protests, and hinted he may be releasing some form of proof backing up that claim.

It’s highly unlikely that Chinese authorities will consent to any serious change in its policies on Hong Kong, which was turned over by Britain in 1997.

A Hong Kong social worker, Alice Man Oi-Yee, 37, viewed the unfolding events as a defining moment regardless of whether the protesters manage to force Beijing to back down.

“Looking back from five to 10 years later, no matter this is successful or not, I think this is an important milestone for Hong Kong for democracy,” she said. “When I talk to my child and say that your mother joined this movement and protected the students, I think this is very valuable.”




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