Hong Kong government officials called off talks with pro-democracy protesters on Thursday as the city’s embattled chief executive faced potential prosecution regarding a new corruption scandal.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, mostly young students and workers, have camped out in Hong Kong’s financial district and other locations in recent days to protest what they say is China’s interference in their local elections. The size of the protests had started to wane as some of the pro-democracy groups were set to negotiate with city officials on Friday.
However, Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam said it would be "impossible to have a constructive dialogue" if students continued to press for full voting rights and held more rallies. The collapse of the planned talks could spark new demonstrations in the streets.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying faced heightened scrutiny after an Australian media outlet reported that he received $6.4 million in payments from an Australian engineering firm in 2012 and 2013—during his tenure as the city’s top leader—to allegedly promote its Asian business interests.
Leung did not disclose the compensation, which he claims was related to the engineering firm’s acquisition of a property consulting company that previously employed him. Leung left the property firm DTZ Holdings in December 2011 just after agreeing to the purchase and before he assumed office in July 2012.
Protesters had previously called on Leung—whom they view as a Beijing loyalist—to resign. Leung refused to give in to the demonstrators’ demand that they nominate their own chief executive candidates in the 2017 election, sticking by an August ruling from China’s top legislature that candidates would still have to be approved by a mostly pro-Beijing committee.
David Feith, an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal Asia in Hong Kong, said on Thursday that while Leung might not have done anything illegal, there is still the "taint of some possible corruption" with "the idea of undisclosed wealth." He noted that the official Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported on the accusations despite Beijing’s previous support of Leung’s leadership.
"This might be the beginning of a case by Beijing to push him out of office—not tied to the protests but from corruption," Feith said on a conference call hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI).
China has mostly taken a wait-and-see approach to the Hong Kong protests. It has not deployed its garrison of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops stationed in the city to disperse the demonstrations.
The protesters say Beijing has not honored its pledge when it acquired the city from Britain in 1997 to grant more autonomy and fully free elections to Hong Kong. Demonstrators accuse the Chinese government of indirectly backing pro-government gangs in Hong Kong—known as triads—that attacked protesters in recent days in an attempt to dislodge them from the streets.
Chinese President Xi Jinping swiftly moved to crack down on any show of support for the Hong Kong protesters on the Chinese mainland, where government dissent is strictly forbidden and news of the demonstrations has been heavily censored. Thirty-one individuals remain in police detention, including some who simply posted messages of support online, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).
Feith said Beijing is likely to respond aggressively to the protests in the long term by attempting to clamp down on freedoms in Hong Kong. That might include increasing surveillance, taking control of media, pressuring companies to distance themselves from the democracy movement, and influencing judicial and university appointments.
Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption already raided the homes of Jimmy Lai, owner of the Apple Daily newspaper known for its anti-Beijing stance, and a pro-democracy lawmaker that Lai donated to, just before the electoral ruling in August.
Jinping previously advocated a hard line on Hong Kong freedoms when he controlled the city’s portfolio for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and is likely to do so again now as president and party leader, Feith said.
"He has been centralizing control with a crackdown in terms of measures of political freedom across the board," he said, as well as seeking control of geographic territories in the Asia-Pacific region. "That whole record speaks to the likelihood that Beijing will respond to this aggressively."
Ellen Bork, director of democracy and human rights at FPI, said the United States should be taking stronger measures to pressure China regarding its suppression of electoral freedoms in Hong Kong—such as revoking privileges granted to the city under the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act if China exerts more control over it.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that the United States "support[s] universal suffrage in Hong Kong" and the "highest possible degree of autonomy" as he met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Wang bluntly responded that "Hong Kong affairs are China’s internal affairs" and that "all countries should respect China’s sovereignty."
Bork said people she has spoken with in Hong Kong expressed "great disappointment" about the lack of rhetorical and diplomatic support from the United States for the protesters.
"They don’t see American support for their struggle," she said. "They don’t see that as interference [in China’s affairs], and we shouldn’t either."