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World Hong Kong government opens window to discussions with protesters after months of refusing requests

Protesters march through the streets of Hong Kong on Aug. 18, 2019.

Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Hong Kong’s government is signalling a willingness to talk to protesters after more than two months of demonstrations, but a top government adviser says many of their demands cannot be met.

“The dialogue has to start,” Bernard Chan, a close adviser to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, said in an interview Monday with The Globe and Mail. The government has for months refused requests to discuss protester demands. Now, though, it “needs to address the concerns raised over the last couple of months,” he said.

At a news conference on Tuesday morning, Ms. Lam confirmed the government would “immediately” set up a platform for dialogue with the people of Hong Kong. She also said the government would initiate a fact-finding study to investigate complaints against police as well as make recommendations to the government to prevent the “recurrence of similar incidents.”

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A Sunday rally in which hundreds of thousands of people marched peacefully through the downtown was a “sign of relief” for the city, Mr. Chan said, after weeks of clashes between demonstrators and police. ”Hopefully we can sustain this while we now have to come forward to some sort of a dialogue and reconciliation.”

Yet he also outlined a series of “non-starters” for such talks, underscoring the breadth of the gap between the protesters, who have demanded major democratic reforms, and a government that answers to Beijing and Hong Kong’s powerful business interests. Ms. Lam is preparing for a major policy address in October in which she will unveil steps to address other issues, such as housing affordability and social mobility, Mr. Chan said.

Still, in displaying an openness to talk, Hong Kong’s leaders seem to be acknowledging that they must respond to public pressure, particularly after organizers said more than 1.7 million people marched through heavy rain Sunday, many holding signs calling for the government to meet a series of demands. (Police estimated the crowd was less than a tenth that size.)

The official government response came Sunday night. In a statement, it said it “will begin sincere dialogue … when everything has calmed down.” Protest organizers understood that to mean that no talks are possible unless the demonstrations stop altogether.

Mr. Chan, however, suggested that dialogue would still be possible if “orderly protest” continues. “We don’t discourage people to go out and protest. So long as it is not unauthorized.” But, he added, “you can’t start a dialogue when you’re in the middle of a war. So you kind of need to have a reasonably good state of mind for both sides to sit down.”

While Mr. Chan is not part of the government, he is the convenor of the Executive Council, an advisory body that serves as a quasi-cabinet to Ms. Lam, whose 2017 election campaign he led.

The city’s leaders are aware, he said, that failing to seize the current moment of calm risks spurring further disruptions by protesters, who have accused the government of turning a deaf ear to their demands.

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They are demanding the full cancellation of a proposed extradition bill that could see Hong Kong residents face trial in Chinese courts, Ms. Lam’s resignation, a retraction of a government characterization of protests as “riots,” an investigation into police conduct and the granting of more democratic freedoms. On social media, some demonstrators have fixed the end of August as the deadline for the government to respond. It’s not clear what they plan to do if the deadline is not met, but the violence that has plagued the city in recent weeks has stemmed in part from frustration, as even large, peaceful protests have failed to elicit much government response.

”We have tried different ways and means to fight for our freedom. Yet the Hong Kong government has chosen to be silent,” said Brian Tong, a pseudonym for a masked protester who spoke Monday at a citizens’ news conference. Protesters will continue to “fight for our five demands,” he said.

Anger at perceived government indifference has also fuelled a deep mistrust, raising questions about the sincerity of any government discussion of dialogue.

“The government doesn’t want to see more violent protests, so that’s why they are trying to reward yesterday’s peaceful protest. That can be to some extent a demobilizing strategy,” said Samson Yuen, a political science scholar at Lingnan University who has studied the demonstrations. The suggestion of dialogue could also be used to “split the movement,” he said, by driving a wedge between moderates and militants.

The immensity of the public outcry this summer – three rallies have brought more than a million people to the streets since June, interspersed with numerous smaller demonstrations – has nurtured the belief that pro-democracy leaders now have enough public backing to push for change. “It’s not hopeless to finally gain something from Beijing this time,” said Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy member of the city’s Legislative Council.

But it’s “nonsense” to demand a halt to all violent action before talking, he said. The protest movement is largely leaderless – without a single voice to call off clashes.

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The public of Hong Kong ”has already displayed consistent support” for the movement, Mr. Chu said. “Therefore it is already a mature time for the government to react actively. So let’s not wait for something that cannot be given.”

But there are limits to what Hong Kong is willing to discuss. Several of the five demands are “non-starters,” Mr. Chan said. The government will not consider an amnesty for people arrested at protests and any change in electoral arrangements needs “consent from Beijing.” Ms. Lam has repeatedly refused to step down, while Mr. Chan said “technicalities” have prevented the cancellation of the extradition bill, which has been declared dead but not fully withdrawn. And an inquiry whose entire “focus is just on police brutality – that’s just a no-go,” he said, although he left open the possibility that the scope of such an inquiry could be discussed.

The city’s leadership is discussing ways to respond to what it sees as underlying reasons for the protests, Mr. Chan said. They “may not be addressing the five demands, but other issues – other social issues – Hong Kong is dealing with.”

The scale of the protests has provided an opportunity to push back at entrenched interests, he said, expressing hope that progress can be made on the land and housing-affordability problems that plague one of the world’s most expensive property markets. Hong Kong could look to Singapore as an example for raising the percentage of households in government housing. The city also needs to move more quickly to make land available for housing development, he said.

“Maybe the developers also have to be a bit more accommodating, too,” he said. “All the stakeholders, vested interested parties out there have to see this as a give and take.”

It’s not clear, however, that such proposals will find favour with protesters who, scholars such as Mr. Yuen have found, are motivated by political demands rather than economic grievances.

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“They see the key to solving the economic problems in politics,” he said.

In Hong Kong, the chief executive is elected by a 1,200-member election committee, half of whom are industrial and professional representatives, giving rise to accusations that control lies in the hands of the city’s powerful tycoons. Scholars describe the city as being in the grips of a “real estate hegemony.”

Protest organizers doubt Ms. Lam’s ability to overcome the longstanding obstacles to solving such issues.

“I do not think she has the courage to really displease those who voted for her,” said Bonnie Leung, vice-convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, which has co-ordinated the largest rallies of the summer.

Still, she said, “we are always open to talking to the government.”

Even if Hong Kong’s leaders bar discussion of some demands, “at least we are starting somewhere, instead of just protesting in the streets with some people being beaten by the police and the government with no response at all,” Ms. Leung said. “That is not healthy.”

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