HK protests out of sight, not out of mind

Hong Kong leader Leung Chun Ying must take heed of the sentiments that drove the Occupy movement, as the government begins its second phase of consultations on political reform. That was to have taken place at the end of last year but was delayed by the student-led pro-democracy protests. The ruction has been quelled but the disquiet that propelled the street blockades is far from dead. Many continue to feel that the reforms on the table do not go far enough in granting universal suffrage to Hong Kongers. Beijing has insisted that only a small number of candidates be allowed for the direct election of the city's Chief Executive in 2017 and that they be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee.

Hence the scepticism about the value of the latest consultations, which is contributing to a yawning gulf between leaders and ordinary people. Such a worrying trend should prompt closer scrutiny of the motive power of the protests. The numbers that turned out and the determination of protesters took the police by surprise. They were expecting just a few thousand in the business district and acquiescence in the face of arrests. Instead, the young people, mostly students, sat in the streets for 79 days and court injunctions had to be invoked to clear them out.

While public patience wore out as business and livelihoods were affected, the students clearly had the support of ordinary Hong Kongers who have hitherto been seen as politically apathetic for the most part. In that sense, the Occupy movement sparked a political awakening among many Hong Kongers. Given these factors, it should dawn on the government that the use of force to restore public order, while necessary, is insufficient. The political aspirations aroused will not go away unless it can be demonstrated that the system is capable of addressing the pressing concerns of people.

Many of the grievances are economic in nature - unaffordable housing, lack of social mobility, and a growing income gap. The government's tepid response to these problems has led to the view that greater democracy and therefore greater accountability of the government are needed for more effective policies. Mr Leung, to his credit, had sought to address some of these problems in his annual policy speech last week when he discussed initiatives such as new housing plans.

Political challenges are also daunting. The central government has made it clear that the parameters set last August must stay. The rationale for these needs to be communicated in different ways to the public, including the young, so they can better appreciate Hong Kong's place in an emerging China. To avoid a stalemate, ideology must yield to pragmatism.