Hong Kong (AFP) – Hong Kong’s leader has said open elections would result in the city’s many poor dominating politics, as his government headed into talks with activists who have staged three weeks of rallies.
In an interview with foreign media, carried in the Wall Street Journal and International New York Times just hours before the talks were due Tuesday, embattled chief executive Leung Chun-ying reiterated his position that free elections were impossible.
Leung said that if candidates were nominated by the public then the largest sector of society would likely dominate the electoral process.
“If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you’d be talking to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month,” he said in the interview.
Major intersections in the southern Chinese city have been paralysed by mass rallies demanding free elections for more than three weeks, in one of the biggest challenges to Beijing’s authority since the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests of 1989.
The protests are taking place against a backdrop of rising inequality and soaring living costs which leave many young people with little prospect of renting, let alone buying, their own homes.
Though largely peaceful, the rallies saw increasing violence in the past week as police attempted to clear some of the intersections.
Long-awaited talks between student leaders and senior government officials are scheduled to be held later Tuesday in a bid to end the impasse.
But there are fears that neither side will find common ground at the discussions, with both sides seemingly unwilling to compromise — potentially setting up further clashes between protesters and police.
Trepidation over talks
“I’m seriously worried about tonight,” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo told AFP ahead of the talks.
“If this is just going to be a political show — where political animals form a political circus — people will think: ‘Well let’s just take to the streets again.'”
“The situation might get worse” if the government continues to deny concessions to democracy protesters, Surya Deva, a law professor at City University of Hong Kong, told AFP.
“Why should poor Hong Kong people follow laws and believe in the rule of law when they have no hope for political or economic empowerment?” Deva questioned.
Leung made a dramatic U-turn last week by announcing a return to talks with the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the groups leading the protests, after abruptly pulling out of discussions a week earlier.
“One round of dialogue may not solve all the problems but to be able to hold talks is a good start,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
Beijing has offered Hong Kongers the chance to vote for their next leader in 2017. But only those vetted by a committee expected to be loyal to Beijing will be allowed to stand — a proposal activists have labelled a “fake democracy”.
Increased competition with wealthy mainlanders and anger over the cozy relationship between the government and Hong Kong’s financial elite have also left the younger generation deeply uneasy about what awaits them in adulthood.
Almost 20 per cent of Hong Kong residents, or 1.31 million people, are under an official poverty line introduced in September of 2013.
Tens of thousands of low-income families and immigrants are forced to live in the tiny subdivided units, unable to afford sky-high rents in the crowded city of seven million.