Representatives of the student led democracy protests in Hong Kong are due to enter into a dialogue with the Hong Kong government on Tuesday. The prospects for success are not good. The two sides are far apart, with the government saying it will not even discuss the protesters’ chief demand – the democratic election of the chief executive of Hong Kong’s 7.2 million people and, specifically, the candidacy of individuals that Beijing would bar as insufficiently loyal to the Communist party.
A lot rides on the talks. If the government, and top officials in Beijing, are not willing even to discuss the reason for the protests, there is little chance that further disruption and violence, some of which has been engineered by pro-Beijing criminal elements, can be avoided.
The protests, known as the Umbrella movement, began a month ago with a student boycott of classes which then merged with a long planned civil disobedience campaign to “occupy” Hong Kong’s central business district, if as expected, Beijing blocked democratic elections for the chief executive. That indeed happened on August 31, when Beijing issued a ruling that only candidates acceptable to Beijing would be allowed to run for the top office. The future of Hong Kong’s half-elected legislature remains undecided, but it too will be affected by Beijing’s political litmus test and interference in Hong Kong affairs.
An earlier round of talks, scheduled for October 10, foundered when the Hong Kong government withdrew, claiming protesters’ efforts to rally support on the streets and cooperate with pro-democracy politicians constituted bad faith. That’s the pot calling the kettle black, considering that the Communist party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, has published a steady stream of attacks on the protesters. On Sunday, a commentary impugned them again, this time for supposedly seeking independence, a dangerous accusation from a Communist party paranoid about threats to its territorial integrity and political control. As if on cue, Beijing’s appointed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, said on television that the demonstrations are “not entirely a domestic movement,” raising the prospect that the protesters will be smeared as foreign agents.
Leung has asserted that the possibility Beijing will change its position is “almost nil.” Apparently, that’s what the leaders of the world’s democracies think too. There is no sign the Obama administration is serious about advancing democracy in Hong Kong. On October 17-18, Secretary of State John Kerry hosted talks in Boston with Yang Jiechi, a top Chinese envoy, to prepare for President Obama’s upcoming visit to Beijing in November for APEC meetings.
Over two days, Kerry and Yang held meetings, toured John Adams’s house, and dined at Kerry’s home. According to a senior administration official, the evening exhibited “graciousness,” the menu had a “New England cast,” and a Chinese-American played the harp. This, according to a senior official, showed “the power of American hospitality.”
With regard to Hong Kong, the official said, Secretary Kerry shared with Mr. Yang “our perspective, our views, our hopes, and our concerns with regard to the situation in Hong Kong, both in the short term and beyond.”
In his famous 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel described the impact an individual has when he rejects the lies imposed upon him by a totalitarian system and begins “living in truth.” The essay was cited as inspiration by dissidents throughout the Soviet bloc. The students and other protesters insisting on real democracy in Hong Kong are following in Havel’s tradition. They are taking serious risks, perhaps not by standing in front of tanks, for the moment anyway, but by exposing themselves to retaliation, including physical attacks.
As they enter into talks with the proxy for the biggest, most powerful one party dictatorship on earth, they are entitled to know exactly what the U.S.’s “views, hopes and concerns” are and what the biggest, most powerful democracy on earth is going to do about them. Or whether for now the United States will simply wield “the power of hospitality.”