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Unprecedented Hong Kong protests test Beijing’s patience, policy

Hong Kong’s new normal: At night sleep-deprived protesters and police clash. During the day, counter demonstrators pick fights and engage in verbal tirades with young street activists.

Three weeks in, the standoff in Hong Kong -- pitting pro-democracy protesters against the Beijing-backed local government -- shows no sign of waning. Talks are scheduled Tuesday between students and Hong Kong officials, but few independent observers think a settlement is likely. A weary city seems resigned to cat-and-mouse confrontations that could go on for weeks, even months.

“There is no predicting what could happen,” said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The DNA of Hong Kong politics has changed. What we have witnessed the last three weeks has never happened before. . . . We’ve never had this type of continuous confrontation, led by students.”

The wild card in this equation is Beijing itself. How long will it tolerate Hong Kong’s protests? At what point will it directly intervene, if it decides that Hong Kong’s local government is incapable of quieting the masses?

China’s Communist Party meets this week in Beijing for an annual plenary, and while the official focus is on the judiciary and legal matters, Hong Kong will surely be discussed. Lam said it’s unlikely the party will issue any kind of statement on the Hong Kong protests, but the plenary could start the clock ticking on using force to end the street demonstrations.

“The soft deadline is the APEC proceedings in early November,” said Lam. By that, he means the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which Chinese President Xi Jinping will host on Nov. 10 and 11 in the Huairou district outside of Beijng. More than 20 heads of state, including President Barack Obama, are scheduled to attend.

“This is a big showcase for Xi,” said Lam. “He won’t want any distractions.”

For weeks, China experts have debated whether Xi might, at some point, deploy a unit of the People’s Liberation Army to use “decisive force” to end the protests. The most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, Xi has clamped down hard on dissent in China, and adopted a much more aggressive foreign policy than his predecessors.

Despite that track record, many longtime analysts doubt Xi would deploy the military in Hong Kong, as China did against student protesters in 1989 in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing hundreds.

Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, noted that Hong Kong is an international financial center and one of the world’s largest ports. A military response would prompt an exodus of foreign companies and investment from Hong Kong, and in turn, from China, he said.

“This is not Tiananmen. This is Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a free, open society,” Davis said. “If people march here, and China chooses to repress protests, the impact will be much more egregious than what they did in Tiananmen.”

Alan Ka-lun Lung, who runs a think tank called the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation, said that Beijing may be taking a longer view on the situation than is generally acknowledged. Postings by well-connected observers on Chinese social media, he said, suggest that China’s leaders want Hong Kong to avoid further alienating the city’s students and recent graduates.

“Beijing seems to have a real fear about ‘losing the young generation,’ ” said Lung. “It is something they talk about.”

There are even signs, he said, that party leaders were angered by Hong Kong’s decision to use tear gas on a relatively small number of students on Sept. 28. That may be one reason, he added, that police haven’t since used tear gas on demonstrators, even as their street protests have become more volatile.

According to a report in the New York Times on Friday, top Chinese officials have been closely monitoring the standoff, and directing the response, from a secretive luxury villa in Shenzhen, just across the mainland’s border with Hong Kong. The Bauhinia Villa is owned by the Central Liaison Office, an arm of the Chinese government that, according to The Times, “has played a prominent role in Hong Kong during the protests.”

Beijing has also stepped up efforts to limit what the Chinese people know about the protests, including their scale and purpose. News websites not already restricted in China, such as that of the BBC, have been blocked. Social media have been scrubbed of protest photos.

When thousands of street activists stormed the neighborhood of Mong Kok Friday, the People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party, initially reported that only 200 protesters were involved. It wasn’t till a day later it reported an estimated 9,000 protesters had reoccupied the site.

To many in Hong Kong, the protests seem to be on a dangerously undirected path. Others say they are being directed. Pro-Beijing business groups and newspapers have regularly made the claim that the United States and other western countries are financing and instigating the protests.

On Sunday afternoon in Mong Kok, a counter demonstrator grabbed a microphone from protesters and shouted, among other things, that they had all been paid off by the CIA. Protesters listened for a moment, then shouted him down.

There are signs that unfiltered news about the pro-democracy movement is trickling back to the mainland. On any given day, tens of thousands of Chinese tourists visit Hong Kong. Many of them bring back protest photos and souvenirs -- such as yellow ribbons and umbrella origami -- and share them with friends and family.

If such “contagion” continues for several more weeks, Beijing may grow impatient. “It can’t be ruled out,” Lam said that that concern would prompt Beijing to deploy its military forces.

Another alternative, he said, would be for the Chinese government to declare a state of emergency, which it can do under Hong Kong law. Such a declaration would effectively suspend the “one country, two systems” arrangement that, since 1997, has provided the former British colony with some level of autonomy.

The talks that start Tuesday aim to head off further escalations. The Hong Kong Federation of Students is one protest group that has agreed to participate. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s second-highest ranking official, will represent the government.

Not in the room will be the city’s chief executive, C.Y. Leung, also known as Leung Chun-ying, whose resignation protesters are seeking.

The two sides are far apart. Protesters want an election system for chief executive in 2017 that allows civic groups to nominate candidates of their choice. Beijing has agreed to allow elections, but only involving two or three candidates that have been screened by a Hong Kong committee loyal to Beijing.

Lung, a moderate whose foundation is careful to avoid direct criticisms of Beijing, said there is a compromise to be struck. In simplified terms, it would involve changing the current nomination system so that the city’s pro-democracy forces could be assured of having one candidate running, but one acceptable to the city’s legislature, and in turn, the Chinese government.

Lung said he has no idea if Beijing would accept such a compromise. He has even less confidence that young protesters would.

Lung, 59, acknowledged he can’t even control his own 22-year-old son.

When police fired tear gas against protesters on Sept. 28, and the scene was broadcast live on television, Lung said he pleaded with his son not join the protests. His son went anyway.

“They feel duty bound to be out there,” said Lung. “There isn’t much that we (older people) can do to control them.”