It’s deal time in Hong Kong

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It’s deal time in Hong Kong

We are all Hong Kongers today. And in the weeks and months ahead, many of us will continue to support the protesters’ brave stand against a repressive Chinese regime. Nevertheless, it’s time for them to face reality and plot an endgame.

Eleven days into the Umbrella Revolution, it’s clear Beijing won’t back down. President Xi Jinping won’t accede to the movement’s universal suffrage proposal or sacrifice Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to ease tensions. Nor is Xi risking another Tiananmen Square. Ugly headlines generated by police tear-gassing peaceful protesters on Sept. 28 prompted an about-face in Beijing. Xi’s party now aims to wait out the protesters and let public opinion do its dirty work.

The longer this drags on, the more student activists risk looking to average Hong Kongers like irritants. The latest news is full of gripes about damaged commercial interests in a city that, let’s face it, exists to do business. Scuffles have been going on since Friday between demonstrators and pro-China provocateurs, underlining the growing fault lines in a place that wants both greater democracy and economic growth.

That makes it deal time for Hong Kong’s students. Why not parlay what’s been achieved so far into meaningful concessions from the government? These could include access to affordable housing and education, efforts to redress inequality, improved public services and a genuine framework for political reform and engagement with Beijing. The first direct talks between the protest leaders and government officials began Sunday night. Now, leaders should demand to plead their case directly to Leung.

Critics will say such concessions have nothing to do with democracy - and thus would render the protests futile. But any movement toward egalitarianism in oligarched Hong Kong would be a vital step toward genuine representation. By winning an accommodation or two from China, student leaders like 17-year-old Joshua Wong can demonstrate that they gave Goliath a good fight and achieved something substantial.

But then, this battle isn’t just about democracy. Hong Kongers are a pragmatic people; they know their future prosperity is in China’s hands. If most of the city’s seven million residents believed Leung’s government was serving their interests rather than those of Beijing or half a dozen Hong Kong tycoons, the pro-democracy movement would lose urgency. Xi’s closed-door meeting last month - ahead of threatened protests - with Li Ka-shing and other faces of Hong Kong’s billionaire elite said everything about how the city is run.

It’s not some radical fringe that views Hong Kong’s as a crony government that ignores the masses. All too many Hong Kongers have no chance of affording a home, and few hopes of paying for a globally competitive education. As consumers, they are squeezed by giant monopolies, and as citizens, they face threats to the media freedoms and rule of law that set them apart from mainlanders. The Occupy Central movement has succeeded by hitting a chord with them.

Xi would be wise to allow Leung to achieve a face-saving peace. At the moment, the global narrative is about a tin-eared and heartless China. By opening the door to greater engagement with Hong Kongers - say, by creating new policy committees or democracy-discussion panels - Xi would score soft-power points around the globe.

As student leaders grasp for an elegant way to de-occupy, they may get inspiration from Bao Tong, who was an adviser to Zhao Ziyang, the former Chinese premier and Communist Party chief, purged for sympathizing with Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989. As Bao tells The New York Times, there’s “no harm in taking a break from the debate now” and giving their cause time to gestate.

This isn’t surrender. It’s a recognition that there’s no shame in the students’ licking their wounds, learning from the experience and trying again another day.

*The author is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo.

by William Pesek

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