Government and Student talks – The Verdict

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Government representatives and the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) finally began the long awaited dialogue on Tuesday, holding a 5 on 5 meeting in Wong Chuk Hang. Harbour Times asked before the talk started whether the students would appear reasonable enough for the moderates, but strong enough for those on the streets, and if the government would show creativity, independence, a willingness to listen, and whether they represented Hong Kong’s interests.


Government representatives included Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, Secretary of Justice Rimsky Yuen, Secretary of Constitutional Affairs and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam, his Undersecretary Lau Kong-wah, and Director of the Chief Executive’s Office Edward Yau. HKFS had Secretary-General Alex Chow, Deputy Secretary-General Lester Shum, Spokesperson Yvonne Leung, Eason Chung, and Nathan Law. The meeting was moderated by President of Lingnan University Professor Leonard Cheng.

The main sentiment from the government camp seemed to stick to the usual line, asking the students to accept the current framework and move on, and look to further improvements in the future beyond 2017. While Carrie Lam addressed the general direction of the reform process, Raymond Tam and Rimsky Yuen locked horns with all five students discussing the political and legal realities at stake. Carrie Lam addressed the current protests as a “movement”, avoiding the “revolution” label, saying she “slightly” agreed the demonstrators have been peaceful. She did condemn the disruptions the movement has made to Hong Kong people’s daily lives and local businesses, and singled out Mong Kok as dangerous and losing control. She quoted Fernando Cheung who said it was on the verge of rioting. It should be pointed out that Fernando Cheung later spent a night between protesters and the police line in Mong Kok with Claudia Mo. Lau Kong-Wah and Edward Yau remained silent throughout the debate.

Carrie Lam ended the talks listing four official responses from the government, 1) there is still ample room to create a democratic nomination and election procedures for 2017 under the current framework proposed by the NPSC; 2) there still remains opportunities to improve the methods for electing the Chief Executive beyond 2017; 3) the government would like to set up a platform for different parties to discuss political reform after 2017; 4) the government will submit a report to the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office on the sentiment of Hong Kong citizens following the decision made on August 31st.

Really?

The Chief Secretary seemed unable to provide any concrete promises when Alex Chow asked what impact the report might actually have on the ensuing political reform. In the press conference after the talks, Carrie Lam said the report would reflect the sentiment of Hong Kong citizens in the past few weeks and include objective facts, but fell short of describing what the content would include. Raymond Tam said his office would be responsible for writing the report.

The appointment of Leonard Cheng, an advisor to CY Leung’s election campaign, as the moderator raised concerns, fearing he would be biased towards the government representatives. He did his job well, clarifying the students’ points and directing them to state any concrete requests. But in truth he did not have many challenges to overcome as both the government representatives and students were well behaved throughout the talks.

Firm

Students showed respect, listening intently when it was the opposition’s turn, while also displaying strength in stating their case and challenging the government to respond to voices on the street. At one point, the government continued to repeat the reasoning behind adhering to the Basic Law and the NPCSC’s framework and seemed unwilling to offer any concessions, Lester Shum asked, “You keep asking Hong Kong people to make concessions and go home, but haven’t we made enough concessions?”.

While the government mainly argued strictly on the basis of the importance of law and order, HKFS showed charisma by appealing to emotions to advance their stance in addition to making well-structured arguments according to the law. When the government insisted on sticking to current laws, Alex Chow questioned the government, “Laws are written to protect people’s rights. Are our laws protecting the government rather than the people? If the Basic Law isn’t just, then why can’t the government consider changing it?”

Clever sidestep

The government gets points for creativity by circumventing the constitutional five step process and promising an additional report on sentiments to Beijing, but whether this could bring the change occupiers are hoping for is anyone’s guess. This report could provide an opportunity for Beijing to loosen the proverbial leash on 2017 elections without losing face, or it could discredit the movement and do the opposite.

Contrary to what Raymond Tam said about both parties having a lot of similarities, save for one difference on the nominating method for the CE, it appears that both parties have yet to find common ground. Both sides stood firm and at one point, Secretary of Justice Yuen told students to “use their common sense”. Language such as this and referring to the students by their English first name connotes a tone of superiority. This leads one to question whether the government sincerely takes the students seriously on the same level, a student precondition to talks.

The Score

So for the final scoring board. Were the students reasonable? Yes. They had well-thought out points and came across like a well-prepared debate team. Strong enough? Yes. They called the government out on their ambiguous promises and made daring challenges to the reform team.

Did the government show creativity and independence? The report certainly added brownie points but much of the rhetoric was all too familiar. Overall, nothing new. Willingness to listen? It seemed so on the surface, but their hard line doesn’t show that they are willing to listen to the voices on the streets. At least Lau and Yau were there to do (nothing but) that. Represent Hong Kong’s interests? That depends on whose interests you’re referring to but one thing is for sure – they’re adamant that there are just as many differing views on what is best for Hong Kong. Conclusion? To quote Carrie Lam, the two sides successfully “agreed to disagree”.