The standoff between Beijing and pro-democracy protesters could be resolved by negotiation, according to a senior Chinese diplomat.
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to Wu JianMin, former Chinese ambassador to Geneva and France, who sits on the Foreign Policy Advisory Committee in the Foreign Ministry – one of the ‘brains’ behind China’s grand strategy. Although he reiterated the official rhetoric about Hong Kong’s failure to achieve democracy under colonial rule, and how ‘unhelpful’ the occupation is, he revealed a softer and more pragmatic side of Beijing’s thinking.
‘Hong Kong was occupied by the UK for more than 100 years; they didn’t practice democracy.’ The ambassador was keen to remind people that Hong Kong was a colony before 1997, and that the city has moved closer to democracy ‘after the return of Hong Kong to the motherland.’
However, these agreements also guaranteed Hong Kong will maintain its autonomy with its own legal and political system. The most important component of the Joint Declaration is Hongkongers’ right to open elections, which (they believed) would safeguard their way of life from Beijing’s intervention. Besides, just because the former colony did not enjoy democracy in the past, why should Hong Kong, ‘liberated’ under Chinese rule, be denied the right now?
Beijing greatest fear is that once Hong Kong democratise, it would be used by foreign governments as ‘bridgehead’ to destabilise China. Last week, Hong Kong's leader, CY Leung, openly accused ‘foreign forces’ of stirring up the protests, and claimed he has evidence of such plots. Amid the tensions, I asked the ambassador to ‘give us an insight as to what these foreign forces might be?’ Without thinking twice, Mr Wu responded humorously, ‘Oh, I think you know better than I do.’
Closer to home, the question of foreign interference raised some eyebrows here in Britain after Newsnight’s report on the Oslo Freedom Forum. In it, Laura Kuenssberg appeared to suggest that Hong Kong protesters were trained by activists abroad. Kuenssberg had to clarify when the dissident interviewee, Yang JinLi, was widely quoted in the pro-China press, including a report by the People's Daily that claimed over 1000 protesters were trained. ‘You [Yang] did not suggest in any way in our interview that you have been directly involved in organising the protests in Hong Kong.’
Angel Leong, spokesperson for United for Democracy: Global Solidarity with Hong Kong, a group that organised rallies across the globe in support of the Umbrella Revolution, expressed scepticism towards such allegations. ‘No organiser has been trained overseas, not in Oslo or elsewhere,’ Ms. Leong told me- ‘So far we’ve had no luck in getting the BBC to retract or do a major correction to the story.’
Avoiding the sensitive subject diplomatically, the ambassador went on to criticise the students on the streets for imposing their will on the rest of Hong Kong. ‘These Hong Kong students… they occupied very crucial areas of Hong Kong. It’s a problem for everybody. They believe their view is the best, their position is the best. This is not necessarily true.’ Mr Wu’s comments are akin to the Chinese state media’s message in the past month, that these students don’t represent the interest of Hong Kong.
Though the ambassador forgot to mention it was the students who initiated dialogue, and these protests began with Beijing’s decision to impose Iranian style ‘democracy’ on Hong Kong. And if the government is genuine in including the views of all Hongkongers, instead of a narrow interest group (be that students or the elite), why not have an open, democratic election?
However, there is a softer and more sensible side to Mr. Wu, and perhaps Beijing. Although the ambassador emphasised that these occupations are ‘not helpful’, he also believes that dialogue, not confrontation, should solve the current crisis. ‘We have these agreements between UK and China,’ said the ambassador, referring to the Joint Declaration. ‘Against such a backdrop, everything can be settled through talks.’
If officials in Beijing are the ‘bad cop’, Mr. Wu must be the ‘good cop’. His remarks may just lend us enough of an insight as to how the Umbrella Revolution can draw to a close. In the end, there needs to be a compromise from both from Beijing and the protesters. And both parties recognise that. However, there can only be a common ground for cooperation if Beijing moves towards opening up the elections in Hong Kong, rather than vetting candidates behind closed door.
By Noah Sin