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Hong Kong, the golden goose Beijing cannot sacrifice
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Oct 08, 2014

Hong Kong protest leaders vow to 'stay on the streets'
Hong Kong (AFP) Oct 08, 2014 - Hong Kong pro-democracy protest leaders pledged to stay on the streets Wednesday in a bid to keep pressure on the government ahead of already fraught talks on political reform.

Numbers at demonstration sites around the city have dwindled to a few hundred after days of mass rallies to demand fully free elections and police said Wednesday they were employing negotiators to try to persuade protesters to leave the barricades.

But student leader Lester Shum insisted they would stay.

"We have reached the stage of dialogue and we will be persistent in our civil disobedience campaign and stay on the streets," he said.

Leader of the pro-democracy Occupy movement, Chan Kin-man, added: "Only if the government quickly take action and give a concrete response to students' demands (for democracy) will the problem be resolved."

Formal talks are set for Friday between students and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam -- the deputy to Hong Kong's embattled leader Leung Chun-ying.

Pro-democracy leaders had agreed to a dialogue earlier with Lam but called it off last Friday after what they described as "organised attacks" on protesters at the Mong Kok demonstration site.

"We are very sincere about organising this meeting and dialogue," said Ray Lau, deputy secretary for mainland and constitutional affairs.

But he added there were "many difficulties ahead", with disagreements over arrangements, including the venue and whether there should be a mediator.

The authorities have given no indication of concrete plans to clear the protest sites and reopen roads, despite traffic gridlock and truncated bus routes.

"(With) all the obstacles on the road, we have already arranged the police negotiators and the police community relations officers to engage in dialogue with people gathering there," Lee Kwok-chung, senior superintendent of traffic police, told reporters.

"We tried to convince them to remove the blockage as soon as possible and, if not, we will continue to monitor the situation and take suitable actions if needed."

- 'Hold on regardless' -

Protesters are demanding "true democracy" after Beijing insisted that it vet candidates for the city's 2017 leadership elections.

Rising social inequality, the soaring cost of living and distrust of the government is also fuelling discontent, particularly among Hong Kong's disillusioned youth.

Protesters remain sceptical that talks with the government will achieve any concessions on political reform and those who remain on the street want to stand their ground.

"This is an important spot -- we should hold on to this regardless of how many people we have," said Helix Kwok, an 18-year-old student who was among a dozen protesters camping outside the Chief Executive's office Wednesday.

"If we withdraw, the government will then ignore us. With us here, we can react to anything that happens."

The government complex has been one of the key protest sites and scene of tense standoffs between police and students, with Wednesday's opening of parliament called off over security fears.

"I'm not very hopeful about the outcome (of talks)," said Timothy Sun, 17, who has spent 10 days at the main Admiralty protest site.

"I think the government is going to repeat the same thing as before -- instead of accepting our requests such as civil nomination, they say that we'll have free elections step-by-step.

"I am going to stay on. I don't want this protest to be a failure."

Demonstrators are facing an increasing public backlash as road diversions due to the occupied sites jam the highways and businesses say they are suffering.

Hong Kong's democracy protests have stoked fears of retribution from China, but observers say the city is simply too valuable to punish and sideline, even as it faces a long-term challenge from mainland rival Shanghai.

Demonstrators, sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands, have taken to Hong Kong's streets over the past week to demand free elections for the city's leader in 2017, a display of civil disobedience initially met with tear gas from riot police and later attacks by unidentified men.

Large-scale disruption has triggered fears in the semi-autonomous city that Beijing -- which does not tolerate any challenge to its rule -- may seek to penalise it for the show of popular intransigence.

The greatest threat could be for the leadership to sideline the free-wheeling former British colony in favour of China's emerging financial centre Shanghai, where authorities established a much-vaunted free trade zone (FTZ) a year ago.

"Because Hong Kong is now standing up to China, it is seen as an unreliable partner," said Francis Lun, a financial analyst and CEO of Hong Kong-based Geo Securities.

"This will escalate (the trend) that Shanghai will one day replace Hong Kong as the financial capital of China.

"If the tide changes, there is no going back," Lun added. "It could happen. It could happen very fast."

But experts maintain that Hong Kong is not at risk of being marginalised in the short-term. That would be self-defeating for Beijing, which continually stresses that the city is part of China, and itself uses it as a key economic conduit.

Taking measures to economically punish Hong Kong would just "harden views" in the territory, noted Julian Evans-Pritchard, China economist at Capital Economics.

"Obviously, they're not happy about what's happening in the protests, but they're still trying to model a lot of the (financial) reforms on the mainland on Hong Kong," Evans-Pritchard said.

"So, I don't think they want to set Hong Kong back. It would be silly to have a tit-for-tat."

- 'I will use you' -

Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 and has its own government and legal system, with its residents enjoying rights and freedoms unknown on the Chinese mainland.

Nonetheless the protests are fuelled by soaring inequality and living costs as well as anger over the cosy relationship between the city government and its financial elite, contributing to a sense of disenchantment among the younger generation.

Hong Kong -- known for its open approach to business -- was ranked the world's freest economy this year for the 20th consecutive year, according to the Index of Economic Freedom, published annually by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. Mainland China, by contrast, ranked 137th.

Analysts cite Hong Kong's "transparent and fair" legal system as a keystone of the bridge it forms between China and the global financial community.

The city is also a major destination for mainland Chinese investors, with nearly 60 percent of Chinese outbound investment either directed to or channelled through it by the end of 2012, according to China's Ministry of Commerce.

Beijing is moving slowly to open up its capital markets and promote the yuan as an international currency.

But at the same time it is looking to maintain its control over key economic levers -- and foreign firms have lamented the sluggish pace of promised reforms in the Shanghai FTZ.

"Obviously there's a clear preference for China to develop Shanghai," said ANZ senior economist Raymond Yeung. "But that doesn't mean they've already abandoned Hong Kong."

The pro-democracy Occupy Central campaign was first announced last year but officials still pushed ahead with plans for a cross-trading scheme between Hong Kong and Shanghai's stock markets, he pointed out.

"It's too simplistic to think that 'You're naughty, and I don't want to take care of you any more'. The leaders of China today are very pragmatic: 'So long as you can deliver, then I will use you.'"

- Narrowing gap -

Yet while Hong Kong need not worry about being eclipsed by its mainland rival in the short-term, the dynamic could shift as the territory's full return to Chinese control in 2047 nears.

At that point, Hong Kong will probably still retain some of its "inherent advantages" such as the widespread use of English, Evans-Pritchard said, but may stand to lose others, such as its independent legal system.

"I could see a scenario in the very long run -- after it returns to China in 2047, if basically it loses its special status -- then at that stage you wonder," he said.

"I do think Shanghai will become increasingly important and it could overtake Hong Kong, at least as a domestic financial centre."

For his part Yeung felt Shanghai was unlikely to displace Hong Kong, but added: "Obviously a convergence will be coming, because China is catching up, Shanghai is catching up.

"So the gap between Shanghai and Hong Kong will narrow; this is undoubtedly true."


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