30 October 2014 The Straits Times/ Asia
No chance of reaching a compromise, warns Legislative Council president
By Li Xueying Hong Kong Correspondent
THE one man held in respect by both sides in a politically polarised Hong Kong is gloomy about prospects that the ongoing crisis can end in a “peaceful manner".
And one possible end-game that a sombre Mr Jasper Tsang Yok Sing broaches is of a “small-scale violent conflict" breaking out, possibly in Mong Kok, “giving the police a very good reason to take tough action". This is followed by an islandwide curfew.
If this scenario pans out, it will be the first time a curfew has been imposed in Hong Kong since the 1960s, a turbulent time in its history when riots rocked the city.
This is not a strategy that the government is contemplating, stresses Mr Tsang, who is president of the Legislative Council (LegCo) and founding chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, a pro-Beijing party.
Yet it is a “best-case scenario" raised by an individual during his recent consultations with moderates in both camps. It is also one that more and more people are agreeing with.
“We came up with the rather pessimistic conclusion: there is no chance of various sides reaching a compromise that will defuse this in a peaceful way," he says bluntly in an interview at his office at the LegCo building overlooking the protest site in Admiralty. On the one-month anniversary of the pro-democracy protest movement that has gripped Hong Kong, the 67-year-old, wearing his trademark Mao suit, is in a sombre mood.
The politician whom many in the establishment and pro-democracy camps trust to be even-handed has been repeatedly asked to help broker an end to the stand-off. In private, he has met Beijing officials, protest leaders as well as students.
His conclusion: It is a “zero-sum game".
Among protest leaders, while some are looking for a “safe exit", there are “hardliners who will not want the movement to subside without getting what they want".
The students’ talks with the government last week were an example, he says. The protesters had given the impression beforehand that they could accept the concessions the government eventually proposed, such as a non-binding report on the Occupy movement.
“But the students rejected everything and made even harsher demands," he says. “They won’t go home without something they can brandish as a trophy."
At the same time, Beijing is “very adamant it cannot send out a message to Hong Kong and the world that with a large enough number of people on the streets, it will accede to what people want".
“So, even if the Hong Kong government wants to (do something else to) resolve the deadlock, they can’t. This is the dilemma."
However the crisis ends, Mr Tsang is clear about one thing: The central government will be reassessing the political dynamics in Hong Kong, with ramifications for the city’s Constitutional development.
Before the Chinese legislature’s controversial Aug 31 decision – that only Beijing-anointed candidates can run for Hong Kong chief executive in 2017 – Beijing “did expect some kind of reaction". But it thought this would eventually be reined in by the famed pragmatism of Hong Kongers to “accept the reality". Mr Tsang himself had argued for a more open electoral system, citing the same pragmatism that will make it unlikely for Hong Kongers to elect a leader opposed to the central government. This did not work.
But now, “the current situation will only make the central government more hardline, more convinced that it was a wise decision to ensure that any method of electing the chief executive in future must include safeguards against allowing ‘undesirable’ politicians to take part", he says.
Mr Tsang has ideas for a possible compromise. Candidates, including those from the democracy camp, who attain a minimal threshold of votes from the nominating committee can conduct full-scale election campaigns along with popularity polls.
Before the committee makes its final decision at the behest of Beijing, the central government will have to weigh carefully the “high political price", in terms of the credibility of the electoral system, it would have to pay if it rejects any popular candidates.
After all, he argues, “they do want Hong Kong to be effectively governed, and for the chief executive to have a popular mandate".
Chinese officials he has spoken to say the idea is feasible. But to date, the pro-democracy camp has refused to discuss such a compromise, he says.
Another controversial issue is the purported involvement of foreign forces in the movement.
On this, Mr Tsang calls a recent BBC report which claimed that over 1,000 of Hong Kong‘s protesters were trained by foreign activists “a very very poor piece of reporting".
“That is nonsense," he says.
But he also says it would be “strange if people around the world turn a blind eye to what’s going on in Hong Kong“.
While Washington or London may not be instigating or funding the protest movement, this does not preclude others in the political sphere from doing so, he says.
Mr Tsang has long been touted as a possible candidate who can win a chief executive election.
He categorically rules it out. Besides his age working against him, he knows “very little about economics and running a government", he says modestly, before adding with a laugh: “Even if I had wanted to in the past, what’s happened in the last month is enough to put me off."