By MICHAEL FORSYTHE and ALAN WONGOCT. 21, 2014
HONG KONG — After weeks of protests that have shaken this financial hub of 7.2 million people, residents thought they had seen it all. Then, on Tuesday night, something even more extraordinary happened, on live television: a polite debate between earnest students wearing black “Freedom Now” T-shirts and top Hong Kong leaders over the future of democracy.
Five student leaders, hair disheveled, took on the officials, who were old enough to be their parents, in the frank discourse. They spoke Cantonese, the prevailing local Chinese dialect, with simultaneous translations into English and sign language.
The students wanted officials to commit to greater liberties in future elections. “What is the next step?” Alex Chow, 24, the secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, asked Hong Kong’s No. 2 official, Carrie Lam, 57.
Officials in the two-hour debate made no promises and said they were there to listen. Still, the exchange suggested a softening in the crisis that has convulsed Hong Kong for nearly a month and a possible exit ramp from it.
The government and the students who have been the driving force behind the protests said they wanted to move forward on Tuesday. Credit Nicolas Asfouri/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
It was a remarkably civil and scholarly discussion, all the more so given the generational divide between the sides. Each cited articles of Hong Kong’s Constitution, chapter and verse, to back its points.
Even more remarkable was that it was happening in Hong Kong, the former British colony only a few miles from mainland China, where such a freewheeling public political discussion had not been heard in at least a quarter-century, since students occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing. That protest provoked a bloody crackdown that has reverberated through China ever since.
At issue in Hong Kong was how voters would choose its top leader, the chief executive, in elections planned for 2017. For the first time, all five million eligible voters may cast ballots.
But China’s Communist Party-controlled legislature, which has the final say on how Hong Kong changes its Constitution, restricted the way people can win a spot on the ballot, a decision that democracy advocates say effectively excludes those who offend Beijing.
That sent people into the streets in late September, and they have been there ever since, erecting colorful tent cities on some of Hong Kong’s busiest avenues. Yet on Tuesday night, both sides, the government and the students who have been the driving force behind the protests, said they wanted to move forward.
Mrs. Lam told the students that the government was willing to submit a new report to Beijing acknowledging the surge of discontent that followed the Aug. 31 decision by China’s National People’s Congress on the election guidelines.
In what appeared to be a further conciliatory signal, she also said the rules could change in subsequent elections.
The students stuck with their demands for immediate changes to Hong Kong’s election law. They want the 2017 elections for the chief executive to be open to a wide range of candidates. But Mrs. Lam’s offer did stir some interest.
The government has rejected or ignored all of the students’ demands, except for their request to talk.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, made clear on Monday that the government would only listen to what the students had to say and explain to them how Hong Kong’s political process works. The territory has a great deal of autonomy from Beijing, and its people enjoy a broad range of civil liberties that mainland Chinese lack, including freedom of speech and assembly.
“It is not a negotiation,” Mr. Leung said. “We have deliberately said it is a dialogue. We are all ears, and obviously we are dutybound to explain to the students and through the media the constitutional arrangements for us to have universal suffrage in Hong Kong.”
Mr. Leung is a focus of the students’ anger, and they reminded the government officials, on at least two occasions during the debate, of comments he made on Monday about how full democracy would mean “a numbers game” that would force the government to skew “politics and policies” toward poor people.
“Is he going to be serving the tycoons and the business sector?” Mr. Chow asked. “Is this system democratic? Is it free?”
In public appearances after the debate, both sides played down expectations. Mrs. Lam told reporters that “we can only agree to disagree.”
And Yvonne Leung, one of the student debaters, told supporters at the main protest site that the government “didn’t give us a material response or direction.”
“We’re disappointed,” Ms. Leung said, “and we must continue to stay here.”
Despite the animosity, students and other protesters, watching the debate on large projection screens at the main protest site near the government headquarters, were happy that the government was at least willing to talk.
“This is the first time the government has spoken with protesters on an equal level,” said Teddy Yeung, a computer engineering student wearing a red bandanna. “That’s already a step forward for us.”
~~ Chris Buckley, Hilda Wang and Siobhan Downes contributed reporting ~~