Long-awaited talks between student leaders and Hong Kong government officials on political reform are expected to begin next week.
The meeting is the best chance to air the views of a wider segment of the public after almost three weeks of pro-democracy protests.
This is a time to bring civic power to bear on the negotiations, not merely an opportunity to take on a government that has taken all this long to agree to hear the protesters’ demands.
But make no mistake about it. The talks will be tough, with the government sticking to its hard line and the student leaders vowing to cede no ground.
The chances for consensus are minimal but that is apparently not a top priority for the government, especially after the protesters have largely withdrawn from the streets.
For the record, here’s the protesters’ wish list:
1. Resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying
2. Withdrawal of the 2017 political reform proposal
3. Civic nomination
4. Abolition of functional constituencies
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, the top government representative at the talks, is expected to shoot down all four demands.
On Thursday, Leung firmly laid out the government’s case — no deal on civic nomination or on a more democratic composition of the nominating committee.
These two are the core issues for the protesters but Leung considers them out of bounds, saying they’re outside the framework of the Basic Law and Beijing’s electoral reform proposal.
That sounds a lot like deadlock.
So, what is the government going to talk about with the students? Nothing, because it’s an open-and-shut agenda, unless they move on to other matters.
Still, there does seem to be one thing the two sides might agree on — having more people on the nominating committee. That will require expanding the proposed 1,200-member panel to make it more representative.
It is the one area the government might agree to a compromise and the students might consider progress, albeit a small one.
That might be the one thing that will finally bring the street occupation to an end.
As for the other sticking points, these could be something for future discussion.
For one thing, the government is likely to repeat that the Aug. 31 decision of the National People’s Congress on the election framework cannot be changed.
That means civic nomination is out and a vetting process for chief executive candidates stays in.
The government could also use an increasingly impatient public as a club to beat the other side.
The upcoming talks opens a new chapter in Hong Kong’s political debate. The government is dealing with the students more than it has been willing to engage the political opposition and Occupy Central.
That the government has agreed to talk to the protesters at all — and in an open and transparent manner — makes some kind of deal possible, although arguably improbable.
But if nothing else, the talks will mark a coming of age for Hong Kong’s younger generation as a political force to reckon with.
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