Hong Kong government cancels talks with protesters

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Originally published by USA Today on October 9, 2014

BEIJING — Saying “constructive dialogue” is impossible, Hong Kong’s government canceled plans for much-anticipated talks with protesters in an unprecedented civil disobedience movement that has paralyzed parts of the city for the past two weeks.

The announcement by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam on Thursday came hours after student protesters and organizers vowed to not retreat from their “occupation,” calling for the public to gather Friday outside government headquarters to pressure Hong Kong to jump-start talks on constitutional changes.

YOUR TAKE: Reader photos from the protests

“I truly regret that we will not be able to have a meeting tomorrow which will produce any constructive outcome,” Lam said.

Reacting to the announcement, student leaders Thursday called the government “insincere” and reiterated calls for new protests Friday.

Authorities’ attempts to persuade protesters, who have occupied Hong Kong’s streets since Sept. 28, have largely failed, although demonstrators’ numbers have dwindled to a few hundred from a peak of tens of thousands.

Protesters in this semi-autonomous city under China’s control are demanding Beijing withdraw its plans requiring candidates for the territory’s leader — next elected in 2017 by universal suffrage for the first time — to be nominated by a pro-Beijing committee.

Beijing has condemned the “illegal” protests, offering little hope for compromise, and appears prepared to back the Hong Kong government’s strategy of waiting out the protesters.

Pro-democracy lawmakers, who so far haven’t played much of a role in the civil disobedience campaign, said they would join in by blocking all government funding requests in the legislature except for the most urgent.

The pro-democracy camp is “stepping up their game,” while students follow strategies “from the playbook of non-violent struggle,” said Michael Davis, a constitutional law expert at the University of Hong Kong.

“Beijing is virtually clueless as to how its actions affect Hong Kong people,” said Davis, who blamed Hong Kong officials and pro-Beijing public figures for never challenging China’s line and misleading Beijing over sentiments in the city.

“The mainland will feel pressure for political reform, but that’s not Hong Kong-driven,” he said. “Hong Kong people are no revolutionaries, they are a pretty moderate group of people.”

Still, Chinese authorities appear deeply worried about the potential impact. Dozens of mainland activists have been detained or intimidated for expressing support, according to China Human Rights Defenderss, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group.

“The central government is extremely concerned about the Hong Kong protests, and ensures any solidarity with the protests is nipped in the bud to stop any spread of sympathy that challenges the central government rhetoric,” said Maya Wang, a researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch. “There has been a thorough cleansing of social media.”

On Twitter, which is largely blocked in China, some forwarded a call for an Occupy Tiananmen Square movement Saturday, telling protesters to bring umbrellas, Hong Kong’s protest symbol.

Rain is likely, said Wang, who also forecasts a heavy-handed response from “paranoid” Chinese authorities.

“They see the shadows of revolution everywhere,” she said.

Meanwhile, many mainland Chinese either remain ignorant of the protests or accept the highly negative portrayal in state-run media.

Beijing fashion designer Zhao Muting, 32, who has visited Hong Kong, doubts students there will achieve much through the protest, but envies their right to try.

“I wish China could have more democratic freedoms in the future, but I am wondering how we get them,” she said. “I hope it’s not through bloody means.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

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