Hong Kong protests: Sharp divisions ahead of talks
Hong Kong's government and student leaders at the forefront of ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations have agreed to sit down for landmark negotiations on Friday, but the two sides appear to be sharply divided.
Two weeks into the mass sit-in, the crowds have dwindled to just hundreds in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, prompting questions over whether student activists have lost bargaining power.
"There aren't too many people here," admitted Harry Lau, 25, gesturing to the dozens of people around him preparing to spend another night outside the main government complex.
"But there are many people here," he said, pointing to his tablet, which he uses to engage with friends on political discussion on the Internet. "We are all watching. If anything bad happens, we will all come back."
Many of the remaining protesters, like Mr Lau, believe the impending talks are important despite key differences in opinion between the government and activists. "Even a little bit of talking is better than nothing," he said. "There must be dialogue. That is why I am here."
But it is difficult to see how the two sides can narrow their differences.
Both the Hong Kong and Chinese governments have indicated that civil nomination - allowing the public to directly nominate candidates - is not permitted under the Basic Law, the constitution that sets out the framework for future elections.
The rules state that the chief executive must be nominated by a 'broadly representative' committee.
But student activists want genuine democratic elections in 2017 and want the public to have a say.
Though both sides have agreed to meet, student activists are now accusing the Hong Kong government of sidestepping their demands by focusing on legal technicalities instead.
Speaking on Tuesday evening, Lester Shum, deputy general secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), said the government proposed that talks focus on two technical issues - the constitutional basis for political reform and the laws governing constitutional development.
"The HKFS is disappointed and angry with the government's view," the exhausted looking student activist told reporters.
"Because, by proposing these questions the government has shown their insincerity, and their refusal to face Hong Kong's current big political problem."
When pressed by journalists on why the students agreed to meet, despite their reservations, Mr Shum said they wanted to give the authorities a chance to negotiate an end to the occupation of three key areas in Hong Kong.
He added: "We hope the government is committed to solving the political problem with politics and don't try to play fancy tricks to fool Hong Kong people."
Room for negotiation?
Pan-democratic lawmakers have urged the Chinese government to reconsider its framework on political reform in Hong Kong.
Alan Hoo, a pro-Beijing expert on the Basic Law, said there was some room to negotiate, for example, on the composition of the nomination committee or allowing the public to appeal directly to its members.
"Civil nomination may not be possible, constitutionally, but what about civil recommendation?" he said. "Get the civic involvement. Constructively look at it and give them space (to get involved)."
Alternatively, the Hong Kong government has the option of writing a fresh report to the Chinese government explaining that, facing unprecedented upheaval on the streets, the political situation in the city had changed.
Mr Hoo said that could prompt China to reconsider the rules it had issued in August.
But Rita Fan, Hong Kong's sole representative on the Beijing committee that made the decision, said in remarks carried on live television that the legislative body would be extremely unlike to change its guidelines.
This, in turn, appears to be prompting student activists to harden their stance.
Lester Shum and his fellow activists said they were aware of Beijing's position and have urged a continuation of the street occupation "until the government officials have made some concessions on the political issue".
Still, protesters remain hopeful that the talks will bring some resolution.
Just a few metres away from Mr Lau outside government offices, a young woman was painting an image of a popular Japanese cartoon character Anpanman wearing yellow boots and a cape. She said he was guarding the dreams of the Hong Kong public.
"We have to talk to them," said the artist, who works in a pet shop by day and goes by the pen name of Mickey Mouse. "We can't just stay here forever."
Hong Kong democracy timeline
- 1984: Britain and China sign an agreement where Hong Kong is guaranteed "a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs" for 50 years following the handover in 1997.
- June-July 2014: Pro-democracy activists hold an unofficial referendum on political reform and a large rally. This is followed by protests by pro-Beijing activists.
- 31 August 2014: China says it will allow direct elections in 2017, but voters will only be able to choose from a list of pre-approved candidates. Activists stage protests.
- 22 September 2014: Student groups launch a week-long boycott of classes in protest.
- 28 September 2014: Occupy Central and student protests join forces and take over central Hong Kong
- 2 October 2014: Chief Executive CY Leung refuses demands for his resignation, offers talks with government. Student leaders later accept the offer.
- 2017: Direct elections for chief executive due to take place