Hong Kong protests: China won't give in, army used only as last resort, say sources

Pro-democracy protesters sit facing policemen as the block an area near the government headquarters building in Hong Kong on Oct 14, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Pro-democracy protesters sit facing policemen as the block an area near the government headquarters building in Hong Kong on Oct 14, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China's ruling Communist Party believes it has offered enough concessions to Hong Kong in the past, and will give no ground to pro-democracy protests because it wants to avoid setting a precedent for reform on the mainland, sources told Reuters.

The position, arrived at during a meeting of the new National Security Commission chaired by President Xi Jinping in the first week of October, appears to give Hong Kong's leader little room for manoeuvre as he seeks to end the crisis.

It also sends a blunt and uncompromising message to Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of the Chinese-controlled city in recent weeks, demanding that Beijing stand by a promise to introduce universal suffrage at elections for its leader in 2017 and that Leung Chun Ying step down.

The protests, which China says are illegal, have presented leaders with one of their toughest political challenges since the army violently suppressed student-led demonstrations for democracy centred on Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

Central parts of Hong Kong have been brought to a standstill by protests now into their third week, although police have stepped back since using tear gas and pepper spray early on and numbers have dwindled to hundreds from thousands.

Three sources with ties to the Chinese leadership said that Beijing believed it had already been tolerant enough of the protests in the former British colony.

Asked if the central government will make minor concessions, a source with leadership ties said: "Dialogue (with protest leaders) is already a concession."

Leung's government agreed to meet student protest leaders to discuss the crisis, but talks were called off when it became apparent the two sides were still far apart.

A second source added: "The central government's bottom line will not change", referring to the vetting of candidates for chief executive.

Beijing ruled on Aug 31 that it would screen candidates who want to run for chief executive in 2017, which activists said rendered the universal suffrage concept meaningless.

China's Communist Party leaders rule Hong Kong through a "one country, two systems" formula which allows wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland and specifies universal suffrage as an eventual goal.

"Hong Kong is not high on the list of the central government's priorities," the second source said, requesting anonymity. "The economy is the top priority."

China has already given in twice to demands from Hong Kong, the sources said.

In 2003, about 500,000 people took to the streets of the city, stunning the central government which yielded and shelved passage of the contentious Article 23, or sedition bill.

A rally of 120,000 protesters in 2012 forced the central government to back down and defer plans to roll out a pro-China national education scheme in the city's schools.

"Universal suffrage is a sovereign issue. The central government will not give in a third time," said another source.

"If the protests continue, it would be Hong Kong's loss, not the mainland's. Hong Kong people would suffer."

At the National Security Commission meeting called earlier this month to discuss the protests, leaders decided the central government would "firmly not give in" to the protesters, the source said.

China would also "resolutely support the Hong Kong government's management of affairs in accordance with the law"and "resolutely back police in enforcing the law".

China, with separatist headaches in Tibet and Xinjiang, is concerned that calls for democracy might spread on the mainland and is unlikely to give an inch of ground after the worst unrest in the former British colony since it returned to China in 1997.

"(We) move back one step and the dam will burst," said a party source familiar with Beijing's policy towards Hong Kong, adding that if Beijing yielded, it could have a domino effect with Tibet, Xinjiang and other parts of the mainland demanding the right to elections.

While Premier Li Keqiang struck a relatively mild tone when asked about Hong Kong on a trip to Germany last week, Vice Premier Wang Yang took a stance more akin to what some state publications have been saying.

Wang, speaking in Russia over the weekend, said the West was supporting the protesters, whose aim he said was for a "colour revolution" in the territory, a reference to movements in countries like Ukraine which have forced incumbent governments from office.

However, China has decided there will not be a bloody crackdown in Hong Kong, and sending in the People's Liberation Army would only happen if there were widespread chaos, the second source said.

"There won't be bloodshed like June 4," the source said, referring to the 1989 crackdown.

"The People's Liberation Army will be dispatched only as a last resort if there is widespread chaos - killing, arson and looting," the source added.