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Hong Kong–Just before midnight on October 2, Hong Kong’s top leader, CY Leung, rejected demands of democracy protesters that he resign and Beijing reverse an August 31 edict blocking political reform. Instead, he appointed his deputy to begin talks with leaders of the student-dominated protest movement. In a galling aside, he added, “I will not resign because I have to continue with the work for elections.” Leung himself is unelected and supports the plan by China’s leaders to screen candidates for loyalty to the Communist party that set off a student-led boycott of classes and the continuing protests. 

Protesters had demanded Leung’s resignation after the arrest of student leaders (later released) and the use of tear gas against protesters who have occupied downtown Hong Kong for the past week. 

During that period, tensions mounted as Beijing backed Leung and castigated the protests in front-page editorials in the People’s Daily, the Communist party mouthpiece. In the late afternoon Thursday, Hong Kong police openly resupplied riot gear at government offices. Protest leaders appealed for more people to join the crowds outside the chief executive’s office. Shortly before midnight, students huddled around radios. Instead of the news they hoped for, they heard Leung designate his number two, Carrie Lam, to meet with students. 

Leung’s sop to the protesters may defuse tensions for a time, but it does nothing to solve the underlying problem—the clash between Hong Kong’s values and those of its Communist rulers. Although the people of Hong Kong are realistic about the prospects for political reform in China—“impossible,” several demonstrators said Thursday—they are firm about preserving Hong Kong as a society based on the rule of law, with freedoms of speech and association, underpinned by the autonomy they were promised when the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997. That means being able to speak openly about the Communist party’s massacre of democracy protesters on June 4, 1989, in Beijing and jailed mainland dissidents like Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Such freedom is denied on the mainland. 

It also requires a leader accountable to and chosen by them, rather than Beijing. Above all, it is Leung’s illegitimacy that outrages the people of Hong Kong. Wall posters at the demonstration refer to him by his nickname, “689,” the number of votes he received in the 1,200-member, mainly pro-Beijing, committee of local grandees that currently selects the leader for Hong Kong’s 7.2 million people. 

Allowing a democratically elected leader in Hong Kong would require a major concession from Xi Jinping, the most powerful general secretary of the Chinese Communist party in recent history. Like Leung, Xi Jinping has given his answer: More than a dozen mainland citizens who expressed support for the Hong Kong demonstrations online or in public have been detained or harassed, according to China Human Rights Defenders. 

Xi and Leung appear to be trying to wait out the protesters. Beijing may prefer to avoid force, but a harder line is always possible, perhaps starting with more arrests, a curfew, or provocations designed to discredit the protesters. China’s People’s Liberation Army maintains a garrison in Hong Kong. 

The Obama administration remains aloof. On Wednesday, neither the president nor Secretary of State Kerry pushed back publicly when China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, warned Washington to mind its own business, despite the fact that support for Hong Kong’s autonomy and democracy is established policy and a matter of U.S. law. The next day Leung made his stand, backed up by images of the police force bringing ammunition into his office.

 

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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