Hong Kong Protesters' Talks With Government Only Laid Bare How Little The Two Sides Have In Common

After nearly a month of setting up encampments in the middle of major highways and clogging the arteries of Hong Kong’s financial district, Hong Kong protestors had a face-to-face meeting with government officials Tuesday night. The students’ objective? To secure guarantees that the 2017 elections in Hong Kong would be fair, democratic and free of undue oversight from the Chinese mainland. Two hours later, the talks – which were broadcast over large TV screens to tens of thousands of protestors still in the streets – ended with little movement from either side.

The government, which had been loathe to meet with protestors since Occupy Central kicked off in September, finally changed its tune this week and agreed to meet with five representatives from the Hong Kong Student Federation. During the talks, both the students and government officials remained civil, but it became clear after two hours that Hong Kong was not going to budge on the students’ demands.

The protestors are mobilizing against a decision from the National People's Congress Standing Committee that limited candidates in Hong Kong’s 2017 elections for Chief Executive to two or three individuals who were vetted and approved by a nominating committee. For weeks, the student-led sit-ins have demanded a revision of those electoral policies in order to open up the field to any and all candidates.

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The Hong Kong government has shown little interest in pushing for a changed electoral policy. During Tuesday’s talks, the most that Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary, Carrie Lam, offered was that the Hong Kong government would submit an informal report on the public’s views on possible constitutional reforms to the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office.

In turn, the Hong Kong officials called for an end to the mass sit-ins. The students refused.

Lester Shum, the Deputy Secretary General of the Hong Kong Student Federation, decried the government’s requests that the students leave the streets.

Have we not made enough concessions? So many young people … are even willing to be arrested and go to jail. What do we want? The right to vote and the right to stand in elections. Now the government is only telling us to pack up and go home.

No date has yet been set for another round of talks between the two sides.

Later Tuesday night, the five student representatives took their case for continuing the sit-ins to the protestors gathered in the city streets.

Student leader Yvonne Leung told protestors that she would not be leaving the Mong Kok camp in central Hong Kong until Occupy Central secured democratic elections.

I hope everyone will stay here because we cannot simply allow the government in two hours, to use their sophistry ... and strip away the hard work we have achieved in the last twenty-something days.

At the protests’ peak, close to 100,000 people had gathered in the streets to demand democratic governance. In recent weeks, the sit-ins had seemed to be faltering, but momentum has shifted again in light of some harsh police crackdowns. (Remember this video of police officers beating a protestor with his hands tied?) And ill-advised statements from Hong Kong’s unpopular Chief Executive about the dangers of giving the poor an equal say in the political process certainly has not helped.

It remains to be seen whether or not the talks are merely another tactic in the government’s campaign to tamp down the mass protests. But even without real gains, that the talks happened at all demonstrates that the Umbrella Revolution is a political force in Hong Kong and cannot easily be ignored.