First Signs of a Possible Way Out in Hong Kong

hong kong protests
Protesters look at their phones as they block the entrance to the offices of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying on October 2, 2014. Tyrone Siu/Reuters

That Hong Kong's chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, has asked his chief civil servant to begin discussions with the out-in-the-streets opposition is, possibly, the first good sign that the Hong Kong government (which Beijing has said it has "total trust" in) is looking for a way out of what has become a dangerous stalemate. That said, it is not at all clear what the path to a calming resolution might be.

In its end-of-August white paper, Beijing said what the elections of 2017 will look like. They will not include "universal suffrage," as the protesters demand. Anyone paying attention to China since Xi Jinping took over as party secretary understands that that is not going to happen.

So what is? They—the protesters—want Leung to resign. His masters in Beijing have stood behind him so far. A "through path" (as the British and the Chinese called the post-handover era when they were negotiating its details in the 1980s) is, to be blunt, not yet apparent for a way out of this standoff.

The comparison with June 1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre, has for good reason been front and center as the Hong Kong crisis gathered steam. It has been a long time since then, and the Chinese government has moved from just beginning to come out into the world, to thinking it doesn't need to take cues from anyone anymore, to probably thinking it is pretty close to running the world.

So does that make it more likely that China will steamroll in and start shooting people, as on June 4, 1989? Or does it make it less likely? As nationalistic as Xi Jinping may be, the idea that the Chinese government would inflict violence against the protesters in Hong Kong because China needs to "save face"—it has said how the election is going to go in May 2017, and it will not back down—is hard to believe. With the world watching, tear-gassing Hong Kong university students to get them to clear the streets is one thing. Sending in People's Liberation Army troops—who sit just across the border—is quite another.

Beijing doesn't want to end this with violence—there's too much at stake— and it's not likely it will have to. But it doesn't intend to compromise, either. The current strategy appears to be to wait the demonstrators out, however long it takes. Beijing's belief is that the rank and file in Hong Kong will eventually tire. That's a better strategy than sending in the police or the army. If there's another, middle way out of this, it's not yet visible. But understand: In TV terms, this pits an articulate 17-year-old, Joshua Wong, the leader of the student demonstrations, against a party in Beijing that wants two things: to maintain stability at home and to become the most influential country on the planet.

In Hollywood- and cable news-addled America—a country that seems to be disconnected from reality, and everything seems to be a reality show where the outcome is rigged— the 17-year-old somehow wins. In the real world, it's unlikely Wong and his compatriots have a shot.

They need to find a way out, and a smug Beijing—if it is as smart as it thinks it is—needs to give it to them. Now.