A leader of Hong Kong’s democracy movement warned on Friday that extinguishing hopes for free elections in the city would undercut prospects for political liberalization across all of China, while another said anger with Beijing would probably culminate next week in an attempted sit-in occupation in the city’s financial heart.
The two co-founders of Occupy Central With Love and Peace, the movement that has led demands for democratically electing Hong Kong’s leader, made the warnings at the end of a week of student protests that have reflected ire in the city with Beijing’s limited proposals for electoral change, released last month. But they and other democracy advocates said the increasingly hard-line Chinese Communist Party under President Xi Jinping appeared set against offering any real concessions, no matter how large and noisy their gatherings.
Chan Kin-man, one of the Occupy movement’s co-founders, said the group was nonetheless committed to peacefully “occupying” part of Hong Kong’s main financial district, called Central. He said it was “very likely” that the protest would occur Wednesday, China’s National Day holiday, which is also a public holiday in Hong Kong. Until now, the group has been coy about its plans for that day.
“I’m quite sure that we will occupy, and very likely on that day, but I can’t say for sure,” Mr. Chan said in an interview. But Mr. Chan, a director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the action would be aimed at encouraging democratic commitment in the city, rather than quickly changing the minds of China’s leaders. He said Occupy Central would announce its plans on Sunday, after more discussions and preparations.
“I don’t see any room for compromise, really,” he said. “We have to rely on a vibrant civil society that protects us, instead of expecting any meaningful change in the institutions, at least in the short run.”
After Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, it kept an independent judiciary and relatively robust protections of free speech that developed under British colonial rule. But the city’s leader, or chief executive, has been chosen through an election committee, now with 1,200 or so members, many of them business figures, bankers, traders and professionals loyal to Beijing.
Occupy Central and other pro-democracy groups and parties in Hong Kong have said the Chinese government’s election proposals, announced last month, betrayed promises that from 2017, Hong Kong’s chief executive would be chosen by all the residents exercising equal voting rights. Instead, they said, the plan would engineer outcomes favored by Beijing.
Before facing the voters, candidates would first need to win approval from at least half the members of an election committee, which would still be dominated by groups beholden to Beijing. And only two or three candidates would be allowed to contest the election for chief executive.
At a news conference, Benny Tai, another co-founder of Occupy Central, argued that the long-term health of China depended on letting the city become a laboratory for full-fledged democracy.
If China’s leaders were “farsighted enough,” said Mr. Tai, they would “see that they will have to think seriously about political reform in China, and this reform may involve a certain kind of electoral reform.”
“Throughout the whole China, where will be the best place to have this pilot test of electoral reform?” he said. “I cannot think of any other place except Hong Kong.”
In Hong Kong, anger with the Chinese government runs especially deep among people in their 30s and younger. This week, thousands of university students boycotted classes and attended assemblies to voice their demands, and on Friday hundreds of high school students also abandoned classes for a day of protest.
At a rally outside the Hong Kong Legislative Council building, hundreds of the students sat on the ground in orderly rows, some in their school uniforms, some doing homework while they heard speeches from supporters. Quite a few said they had come despite the misgivings of parents who wanted them to focus on studying.
“My mom supports me, but my dad opposed me,” said Oscar Mo Hau-chuk, a slight teenage boy at the protest, where the police gently herded the students behind barriers. “I told him this government is dark, is wrong, because it doesn’t listen.”
He and other students said only a small fraction of their classmates went to the protest, while most students went to school as usual. “They also support us but were not allowed to come by their parents,” said Jodie Lam, an 18-year-old who was doing math homework while she sat with two classmates.
Mr. Tai, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said that the civil disobedience activities would continue well after the Occupy Central movement ended. One idea being discussed was to hold an informal ballot to elect a “shadow” chief executive. The pro-democracy advocates held a referendum in June that presented residents with rival plans for changing the election system, and it attracted some 787,000 votes, equal to more than one fifth of the city’s electorate.
“It is a kind of parallel government we can run,” said Mr. Tai, referring to the idea of an unofficial chief executive. “Now surely we are not running the actual society, but we are putting checks on the government.”