Francis Moriarty: Hong Kong: Is there a way out?

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WILLIAMSTOWN — The number of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong's streets may be declining after nearly six months of street battles and thousands of arrests, but the hostilities show no sign of ending despite the efforts by the police to crush the civil uprising using force alone.

In fact, the government's muscular effort to exhaust and intimidate demonstrators appears to be worsening the atmosphere, further dividing an already polarized society and damaging whatever chance for dialogue might be resurrected amid the ashes.

But negotiations require more than a willingness to be in the same room. They need an agreed-upon platform and — crucially — credible participants who can both talk and deliver. But tossing Molotov cocktails and trashing mainland-linked businesses from banks to fishball shops make it hard for the Hong Kong government to take any step toward a cessation of hostilities without facing a backlash from battered security forces, angry supporters and — ultimately — Beijing.

Looked at from the other side, the beating, arresting and intimidation of pro-democracy protesters is not exactly a recipe for developing trust, something the city's chief executive Carrie Lam is already low on.

Is there a way out? Well, maybe. For starters, it would require something that Hong Kong bureaucrats are already skilled at: Taking reference overseas. There are many possibilities and one is South Africa, which faced a far more complex, deadly and prolonged struggle, yet found a way out. They are not parallel situations, nor are they interchangeable, but the suggestion is not random and stems in fact from a Hong Kong experience.

In 2007, Carrie Lam was moving up the government ranks. Her office was just a few minutes' walk from a club where, at about the same time as her promotion, I found myself seated next to former South African president, F.W. de Klerk, the man who freed Nelson Mandela, opening the way to negotiations that ended apartheid.

Over lunch, I asked de Klerk something I'd been wondering: How did he, the most prominent member of the ruling National Party that was synonymous with racial apartheid, persuade the African National Congress (ANC) to negotiate with him?

OFFER THEY CAN'T REFUSE

"I needed someone to negotiate with and, of course, that was Mandela, " he replied. "But Mandela was in jail, and even if I offered to free him I knew that he would refuse because the ANC was adamant that none of them would speak with us so long as even one of their brothers was in jail. It was all or nothing, and they meant it. But they also needed someone with whom they could talk.

"So I knew I had to make them an offer that they simply could not refuse. We had to set every one of them free, even though some were really very violent people. So I did. But it was the only choice. And they said yes. Then we both had someone to talk to. "

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Right now, the Hong Kong atmosphere is toxic. The government has been invoking old colonial laws to punish the more aggressive protesters, while trying to scare off the others. Almost comically, it banned the wearing of masks in public - just before Halloween.

Then it singled out Joshua Wong, a poster boy for the mass protests five years ago, banning him from standing election to one of the 18 local councils that deal with issues like rubbish removal and other very local concerns. But these seats can be a stepping stone into politics and most of the councils are dominated by pro-Beijing forces.

Ominously, the threats of intervention by mainland military forces are no longer veiled. President Xi Jinping has warned of blood and broken bones if anyone seeks to break up China.

But each new repressive step also inspires new recruits. High school students have begun wearing Guy Fawkes facemasks for their class photos. Each day of conflict brings more arrests, more hatred between police and protesters, more lost revenue for businesses. The mounting arrests are whittling away at the body of people who might help to find a way out.

In their all-body protective gear and resembling Hollywood Robo-cops, the city's once-beloved police officers are removing anything that makes them identifiable when confronting protesters (and reporters) with tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, beanbags and water cannons.

Lam, who rarely appears in public, has had to apologize in person when one of the water cannons sprayed the city's largest mosque with streams of bright blue water.

Even so, there are a lot of people quietly supportive of the protestors' aims who want to see a calm in the storm. But as things are, it's hard for them to surface.

It's become obvious that a popular movement, leaderless by design and seeking a political objective, will have difficulty agreeing to talks with a government that is constitutionally straightjacketed, has little claim to popular legitimacy, and can reach no deal — especially a political one — without Beijing's approval.

Lam has yielded on one of the protesters' five core demands by withdrawing legislation under which people wanted by China could be sent there. The government has also allowed pro-democracy candidates, except Wong, to stand for the district councils.

What would be enough to trigger talks? Hard to say, unless Lam can draw inspiration from a Nobel Peace Prize winner like F.W. de Klerk.

Francis Moriarty was the senior political reporter for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) covering the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.


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