The ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which have waxed and waned over the past three weeks, face another critical point Tuesday when student leaders will attempt to hold talks once more with the government of Hong Kong's embattled leader Leung Chun-ying.
There is not much optimism, though, that the talks will lead to a significant breakthrough. At the center of the impasse is Leung himself, an official loathed by the protest movement, which seeks his resignation as the Chinese territory's chief executive.
Yet Leung, as my colleague Simon Denyer wrote last week, has remained defiant and rejects calls for his departure. In a Monday sit down with a group of foreign journalists, which included reporters from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, he showed no inclination of heeding protester demands and echoed earlier speculation from Beijing and officials in his government that the unrest was being driven in part by "foreign forces."
What was perhaps most revealing, though, was Leung's reason for dismissing the demonstrators' call for genuine "universal suffrage."
The original spark for the protests was news of Beijing's decision that, while it would allow direct elections for Hong Kong's chief executive in 2017, eligible voters among Hong Kong's 7 million population would only be able to choose from a pool of candidates vetted by China's authoritarian rulers. That, unsurprisingly, was unacceptable to many who want to see real democracy in the former British colony and fear Beijing may be slowly dismantling its unique freedoms.
Leung, as Simon wrote, was elected to his post "two years ago not by the people, but by an exclusive 1,200-member committee stacked with tycoons and pro-Beijing figures." He is desperate to preserve the status quo, and made that very clear on Monday.
"If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month," Leung told reporters. “Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies."
Those comments, dripping with an incredible degree of snobbery, underscore the other major factor fueling the protests: the vast social and economic inequities in Hong Kong, a global financial center dominated by billionaire tycoons, many of whom are are closely linked to the Beijing establishment. This de facto plutocracy is reinforced by a legislative assembly where deputies representing business interests -- ranging from bankers to lawyers to sports coaches -- are guaranteed a direct bloc of seats.
The protesters see these political elites who hold sway as living on a different plane from much of the rest of the city's population, which is struggling with soaring prices, a huge shortage of affordable housing and, as a result, a lack of social mobility, as Simon explained here.
Rather than embracing the protesters' calls for economic justice, Leung and other officials in his government have branded the unrest a nuisance that is choking traffic and disrupting the life and business of this bustling city. "Challenging myself, challenging the Hong Kong government at these difficult times will do no one any service, will do Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy no service," he told reporters on Monday, a stern message that will only further rile the protesters.
Leung also spied a foreign hand in proceedings. "I didn’t overhear it in a teahouse," he said, indicating his claim was more than rumor. “It’s something that concerns us. It’s something that we need to deal with, and the way to deal with this external intervention is not by holding press conferences or taking people to court, I’ll stop at that."
Two Thursdays ago, well past midnight in Hong Kong, a blurry-eyed WorldViews asked Denise Chan, a 23-year-old protester near the barricades outside of Leung's besieged office, whether there were any CIA agents in her midst. Chan reacted with scorn.
"We are Hong Kong people, fighting for Hong Kong," she said. "[Leung] and his friends in Beijing are the foreigners."