After bloody clashes in Hong Kong, students back out of government talks

Pro-democracy leaders say government is trying to portray protesters as unyielding and violent in a political chess game

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The Hong Kong Federation of Students, a protest group pushing for open elections, said Friday it has backed out of planned talks with the government after clashes in the city’s Mong Kok shopping district left democracy activists bloodied and indignant.

The protesters — who are demanding electoral reforms from Beijing and the resignation of Hong Kong’s top elected official, backed by the mainland China government — were confronted in Mong Kok by Beijing supporters and local residents who tried to force the protesters from the area.  

The clashes are the latest development in a political chess game being played out on the streets as authorities and protesters revise their strategies in hopes of winning support from Hong Kong's residents on the sidelines. Public opinion appeared to have swung behind the young protesters after they were tear-gassed by Hong Kong police last weekend, and each side is now keen to avoid being seen to be the initiator of any confrontation.

Late Thursday Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told the press he refused to step down ahead of a midnight deadline set by protest leaders. Instead he offered them a meeting with a high-level government executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, slated for Saturday.

"Stop the violence or we call off the talks," Occupy Central with Love and Peace, one of the key protest groups, said in a statement responding to Friday’s clashes, adding that "if the government does not immediately prevent the organized attacks on supporters of the Occupy movement, the students will call off dialogue on political reform with the government." 

Demonstrators were ambivalent about the talks offer, with some of the movement’s supporters saying the talks may result in some concessions by the government. Others point out that Leung answered none of the protesters’ demands, and they cast his talks offer as a bid to make his administration the reasonable party in the eyes of the wider Hong Kong public as the prospect of increasing confrontation looms closer.

Moments after Leung announced he would not resign, at a protest site surrounding government headquarters, one of the movement’s student leaders, 17-year-old Joshua Wong Chi-fung, declared a “war for public support.” That was a savvy political observation, some say, as the movement recalculates its erstwhile plans to occupy government offices — which would have required attacking and breaching police lines and could have cast the demonstrators as the aggressors.

Meanwhile, a small group of demonstrators attempted to block traffic on Lung Wo Road, an important Hong Kong artery. But they were halted by hordes of other protesters, denouncing that effort at disruption and reportedly linking arms to stop more protesters from joining the blockade. The pro-democracy movement’s opponents are pointing to the disruption of commercial life in the city as a reason to enforce an end to the protests. 

“Some are conscious that the fact that business is interrupted is being used to distract from the real issues at hand. Some are not,” said Emily Lau Wai-hing, a lawmaker with the Democratic Party and a key supporter of the electoral freedoms movement. “Hong Kong society is very split.”

Lau’s opponent in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, Tam Yiu-chung, chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera that protesters are provoking “social unrest” and stand to hurt the Hong Kong economy.

The answer, Lau says, is to communicate to the people that the Leung administration is responsible for a protest movement that has hampered business on National Day week — when mainland tourists typically crowd Hong Kong shopping centers to take advantage of bargains, injecting a sizable amount of capital into the local economy’s service and retail sectors.

Lau said the fact that “people are upset by road closures affecting their business” is precisely “all the more reason why they should come out and push the government to listen to the people’s demands.”

“In coming days, we have to explain the problem to the people. Tell them we are sympathetic. We understand their worries” that their livelihoods will be jeopardized.

There are some concerns that the movement will be infiltrated by provocateurs seeking to create confrontations that cast the demonstrations in a negative light.

“We have to be careful. There is all kinds of subterfuge infiltration,” Lau said. But she added that she has still seen no evidence that the attempted blockade on Lung Wo Road was a government plot designed to discredit the demonstrators.

“There are conspiracy theories like this running around Hong Kong,” said Gary Wong Pui-fung, a sociology professor at Hong Kong University (HKU) who specializes in Hong Kong society. People are “saying the government, police or even [Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army] are sending forces to cause disturbances.” 

The response to potential infiltration for the time being is for the majority of protesters to remain subdued, he said. “What you see from television is protesters trying to avoid further violence,” he added.

After police were said to have engaged in excessive force last Sunday when they launched tear gas canisters into crowds to disperse demonstrators, the director of HKU’s public opinion program, Robert Chung Ting-yiu, said support from a divided public tipped in favor of the protesters.

Some protesters had warned they would storm government buildings and set up encampments if Leung did not meet their demands, but by Friday it appeared that plan had been abandoned by movement leaders as they rework their strategy.

“Occupying government buildings would seriously change the dynamics of the current situation,” Chung said ahead of the proposed action. 

A ‘debilitating’ PR bid?

Demonstration leaders not only risk alienating the Hong Kong public but also people within their ranks in what may prove to be even more debilitating than losing public support, some movement participants say.

One protester, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he felt his views did not represent all participants, said he is “not fully committed to this movement.” He said he is a part of an “anarchist collective” of roughly “40 or 50 people.”

For him, the protests are too polite and yielding to government demands and have done nothing to “change perceptions of violence and law.”

“Social movements in Hong Kong never try to set their own terms. In that way, they have to play the game of the media,” he said. “If one thing goes wrong in the margins, that makes everyone look bad.”

So far the protest leaders are moderating their demands, asking for greater electoral freedoms but not full sovereignty, which local Occupy movement leader Chan Kin-man told Al Jazeera would be “unreasonable.”

But for Occupy to be successful, it must be more audacious, the protester said. “When [protesters] are on that terrain” — playing by the rules — “they are always going to lose,” he said.

He said an attempt to keep protesters from excessively disrupting everyday lives would also prevent any formal change in Hong Kong politics and society. “The so-called Occupy Central tries to do much to steer public opinion in their direction,” the protester said.

He said that one of Occupy’s leaders, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, “goes on TV and says we are going to occupy on the least-busy day of the year. They want as many people on their side as possible. These compromises are really, really debilitating.”

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