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Hong Kong government’s strategy is to wait protesters out

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Pro-democracy protesters gather on the streets near the government headquarters where banners and lampposts are decorated with slogans like this which says "Keep it up Hong Kong!" on Wednesday in Hong Kong.
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HONG KONG >> Although crowds of pro-democracy protesters swelled on Wednesday, a national holiday, Hong Kong’s chief executive and his inner core of advisers have decided, with support from China’s leaders, that their best strategy is to wait and hope that the disruption of everyday life will turn local public opinion against the demonstrators.

Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive, and his advisers have decided not to use force to disperse the demonstrations, but they also will not hold negotiations with protest leaders for now, said people with a detailed knowledge of the Hong Kong government’s and Beijing’s policies. Nor has there been any serious discussion of Leung’s resigning, as the protesters, who number in the tens of thousands and have blocked three major thoroughfares for days, are demanding.

As night fell Wednesday, the streets of downtown Hong Kong filled with what appeared to be the biggest crowd since the protests began. Mostly teenagers and adults in their 20s, the activists were in a festive mood, many taking pictures of each other or writing notes about why they were demonstrating, then affixing the notes to an outer wall of the Hong Kong government’s headquarters.

The city’s leadership has concluded that it would be pointless for Leung to sit down with protest leaders, although a few informal contacts have been made with democracy advocates, and a few of Leung’s friends have recommended actual negotiations. Beijing has given the Hong Kong government only a little room to negotiate the details of how the next chief executive will be elected in 2017 — the fundamental issue for the demonstrators.

"The government can tolerate the blockade of three or four or five areas and see how the demonstrations go, so the only way the demonstrators can go is to escalate it — spread it to more places, and then they cannot sustain it — or they will become violent," said a person who is deeply involved in the Hong Kong government’s decision-making.

If the demonstrators do become violent, the person added, "they know better than we do that they will lose support overnight." Like others interviewed about the government’s intentions, he insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with journalists.

An adviser to the government also said that officials’ emerging view was that Leung should bide his time. "The consensus is to wait and patiently deal with the crisis — it is not easy, but we shall do our best to resolve it peacefully," the adviser said.

The strategy carries risks, for both the local and the national governments, because it in effect cedes momentum to the protesters and allows them to drive events going forward. For China, continuing protests could inspire more dissent on the mainland, despite its censors’ attempts to block discussion of the events. Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, said Wednesday that China had already detained or intimidated dozens of people for perceived transgressions like expressing support for the protesters on social media.

For the Hong Kong government, the risk is that the city’s image as a stable financial center will be harmed and that the government’s intransigence, rather than the protesters’ actions, will be blamed for the short-term economic disruption.

Chan Kin-man, a co-founder of one of the main protest groups, Occupy Central With Love and Peace, said at a news conference Wednesday that Leung would not outlast the demonstrators.

"If he believes that if he keeps on dragging on without answering to our demands then people will go away, forget about it," said Chan, who added that protesters would be willing to skip work to remain in the streets. "If they are not afraid of tear gas, I don’t think they will be afraid of their supervisors and bosses," he said.

The leaders of the demonstrators have repeatedly insisted that they will only pursue nonviolent civil disobedience. In terms of public opinion, violence would be risky for either side: When the outnumbered police resorted to tear gas Sunday night, they provoked widespread anger, and more people came to protest Monday.

The lack of a cohesive leadership among the protesters, who are divided into factions, combined with the ambitious nature of their demands — fully open elections for Leung’s successor, as well as his resignation — have prompted Hong Kong officials to conclude that the protest leaders are unlikely to accept half-measures in any negotiations.

And even if the protest leaders do agree to the fairly narrow compromises that Beijing is willing to discuss, the government has concluded that they are unlikely to be able to persuade demonstrators to go home.

The wait-them-out strategy appears to have the support of the city’s influential tycoons, many of whom are out of town during this holiday week in any case. The tycoons derive the bulk of their income from leasing out their many commercial, office and residential properties, and their tenants have to keep paying Hong Kong’s famously high rents even as protesters restrict access to many businesses.

The hope of the Hong Kong government, and of Beijing, is that this economic pressure will turn owners of small businesses and other members of the middle class against the demonstrators.

Local officials hope that the public will come to see the protesters as people who inconvenience others, not as icons of democracy, as the students occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing became in 1989 before China’s brutal crackdown.

"This is a Cultural Revolution revival, this is not Tiananmen — they think they are doing the right thing, so they can infringe on other people’s interests and therefore make the government kowtow to them," said the person heavily involved in the government’s decision-making.

The government adviser said officials were actively trying to avoid a Tiananmen-style crackdown. "We cannot repeat the mistake of 25 years ago," the adviser said.

In Washington, where he was meeting with the Chinese foreign minister on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States had "high hopes that the Hong Kong authorities will exercise restraint and respect the protesters right to express their views peacefully."

Wang Yi, the foreign minister, and the highest-ranking Chinese official to comment publicly on the events in Hong Kong, said his government "has very formally and clearly stated its position."

"Hong Kong affairs are China’s internal affairs," he said. "All countries should respect China’s sovereignty."

In a carefully worded statement, White House officials said President Barack Obama and Susan E. Rice, his national security adviser, had told Wang they were monitoring the situation closely and "expressed their hope that differences between Hong Kong authorities and protesters will be addressed peacefully."

There was a hint of Beijing’s impatience in an editorial Wednesday in People’s Daily, the main Communist Party newspaper, which called for the Hong Kong community to "support the Hong Kong police’s decisive law enforcement, to restore social order in Hong Kong as soon as possible."

Faced with thousands of protests across the country each year, Beijing has become accustomed to letting local governments try to strike many kinds of compromises.

At the same time, Beijing has censored news to make sure that people elsewhere in China do not hear about such protests, or that they are detained or intimidated if they try to stage copycat events.

–Keith Bradsher / New York Times

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