Why HK protests won’t end soon, despite the talks

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Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters may finally meet with government negotiators on Tuesday, but few political watchers are optimistic that the barricades will come down anytime soon.

"The protesters can offer all kinds of things, but the government doesn't have the leeway to offer them their wishes," Rajiv Biswas, senior director at IHS, said, noting that Beijing will be watching the talks and any potential concessions closely.

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The decentralized leadership among the protesters also makes any agreement complex, he noted. "They may come to some kind of deal, but the trouble is all the factions may not fall in line with it," Biswas said.

Even some of the stakeholders aren't holding out much hope.


"The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is not at all optimistic [about the talks]," Joseph Cheng, a professor at City University of Hong Kong and a pro-democracy activist, told CNBC. "We do not expect that Beijing will respond to our demands."

Then why hold talks at all?

"They want to make their case," Biswas said.

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The protests are in their third week, shutting down parts of the central business district and the Mongkok neighborhood, with protesters defying tear gas, pepper gas and police baton charges to keep their barricades up.

The protesters' primary demand is the ability to select candidates for Hong Kong's chief executive post, rather than being forced to choose from a slate pre-determined by Beijing. Other demands have included the resignation of the unpopular current chief executive, CY Leung.

Cheng believes the best possible outcome of the talks is that the negotiations would continue and eventually broaden so that the Hong Kong government might be able to eventually convince the mainland to reconsider its decision on candidate nominations.

"This is the best scenario we can hope to achieve," Cheng said.

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Even that piecemeal, gradual outcome may not sit terribly well with the mainland.

"The government is also not keen to give the signal that this kind of protest system is the way to get reform," Biswas said. "Of even greater concern to the mainland government is that kind of outcome where protests are successful. That could trigger more protests on the mainland."

Some expect there will be concrete, albeit incremental, concessions on both sides. "It's a lot of face-saving on both sides," said Tony Nash, global vice president at Delta Economics. "They need to make it look like a win for both their side and the other side."

He expects the talks will result in "something incremental with an extended timeline for achievement," without any quick fixes. "It's not necessarily the big bang some had expected, but it's definitely progress."

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Another factor may weigh on the potential outcome of the talks: demands for full democracy aren't the only cause of tension within the city.

"Occupy Central has illuminated the political divide. But economic grievances underlie the political movement," Chris Leung, an analyst at DBS, said in a note last week. "Even changes in the political system would not be able to resolve structural economic issues in a short period of time. In Hong Kong, income inequality has hurt social cohesion," he said, citing in particular the city's soaring property prices.

"Unless and until the causes of social divisiveness are addressed, the potential for further unrest will remain," he added.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1