Hong Kong’s lawmakers and citizens are split over an upcoming vote on the central government’s proposal for establishing universal suffrage in the territory
Although it has been several months since Hong Kong’s Occupy movement ended its street protests, the group’s focus – debate over proposed nomination procedures for the position of Chief Executive, Hong Kong’s highest political office – has continued to rage.
According to the framework announced on August 31, 2014 by the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPCSC), only two to three candidates approved by at least half the members of a nomination committee will be allowed to run in elections for the territory’s Chief Executive.
The nomination committee itself will be elected in the same way as Hong Kong’s existing election committee – by 250,000 individual and corporate voters chosen from four major commercial and civil sectors as well as 38 subsectors.
As pro-establishment figures now allegedly account for about 70 percent of the existing election committee, opposition politicians are concerned that the NPC framework will effectively bar any pan-democratic candidate from appearing on a future ballot.
After the Hong Kong government officially unveiled its electoral reform proposals on April 22, the situation has heated up again, triggering fresh debate and new protests.
Although the Hong Kong government’s proposal is within the framework specified by the NPC, it appears to have made some concessions to pan-democratic demands by dividing the nomination process into two stages. In the first stage, the nomination committee will consider at least five and no more than 10 “potential candidates,” who would need only 120 “recommendations” from 10 percent of committee members to qualify for a second round of nominations. The second stage would see two to three of these candidates placed on the ballot after being approved by at least 50 percent of the nomination committee through anonymous voting.
The government argues that this plan increases the possibility for opposition politicians to participate in the nomination process, and that by allowing an anonymous ballot, the process will guard against alleged political pressure exerted by Beijing on individual committee members, which had been a major criticism of the opposition.
The proposal, which is expected to be subject to a Legislative Council (LegCo) vote sometime between mid-June and late July 2015, will need a two-thirds majority, or 47 votes, to pass. As the pro-establishment bloc has only a 61 percent majority in the LegCo, they need to win the support of at least four pan-democrats to pass the plan.
In promoting the package, Hong Kong’s current chief executive Leung Chun-ying called upon opposition lawmakers to support the plan to achieve “one man, one vote,” which supporters of the bill have described as a “historic milestone” in the history of democracy in the territory. Admitting that the proposal is not perfect, Leung argued that Hong Kong should first “pocket” some democratic progress and seek to make improvements in the future.
Leung warned that if the plan is voted down, it will deprive Hong Kong’s five million eligible voters of their voting rights as the city would have to stick to its current system for choosing a chief executive. Leung also urged pan-democrats to be aware that rejection of the proposed electoral package would postpone the realisation of universal suffrage for the LegCo until at least 2024. Currently, half of the LegCo’s 70 members are directly elected by geographical constituencies, with the other 35 elected by so-called functional constituencies made up of 29 industrial and trade sectors.
Despite the efforts of the government, currently there are no signs that the opposition pan-democrats in the LegCo will backtrack from their position, as they insist that the plan exists to serve as a screening mechanism allowing Beijing to filter out potential candidates whose interests do not align with its own. Currently, all 27 pan-democratic lawmakers have publicly reiterated that they will vote against Leung’s proposals.
As with the territory’s politicians, Hong Kong’s population appears to be divided over the proposal. A poll conducted by the Hong Kong Research Association between April 22 and 24 showed that 61.3 percent of 824 respondents agreed that the LegCo should pass the proposed reforms, while 30.6 percent supported a veto. According to another survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University between May 10 and May 14, 47 percent of 1,129 respondents supported the plan, while 39 percent opposed it.
Analysts believe that the large discrepancy (up to 20 percent) between various polls on the issue of electoral reform can be explained by the different wording used by various polling agencies. Although polling data universally shows that support for the proposal consistently exceeds opposition, they still indicate how contentious any decision is likely to be.
It is argued that, as the reform proposal needs two-thirds majority support in the LegCo, rates of support among the general public would need to stand at 70 percent or higher to cause opposition lawmakers to feel sufficient pressure to switch sides.
For many observers, the debate over the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive is a manifestation of divisions regarding a more profound question – namely, the fundamental relationship between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland.
While the pro-establishment camp supports closer ties with the mainland, wherein it argues lies the economic future of Hong Kong, many pan-democrats and young Hong Kongers argue that contact with the mainland should be minimised, with many blaming mainland social problems – including a widening income gap, rising housing prices and a perceived clash of cultures – on the influx of capital, immigrants and tourists from the mainland in the past two decades.
In the meantime, a so-called “nativist” cell has arisen among young people in Hong Kong involved in the city’s democratic movement, which runs parallel with rising antipathy against not only the central government in Beijing, but also against mainlanders in general.
Prior to and during the Occupy Central protests last year, some protesters even called for the territory to be returned to its former colonial occupier – the UK – with many colonial-era flags unfurled at the barricades in Central, though colonial Hong Kong was never a democracy. During recent protests against mainland retail tourists in February and March, the message that “we are Hong Kongers, not Chinese,” also took a prominent role, with mainland shoppers harassed and told to “go back to China.”
According to a recent Reuters report, 28 percent of 569 students polled by Undergrad, the official magazine of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) students’ union, supported full political independence for the territory. Such a mentality, viewing Hong Kong as a separate cultural, political and even ethnic entity from the Chinese mainland, is believed to be a major factor contributing to youth opposition to proposed electoral reform.
In the aforementioned HKU opinion poll, 63 percent of respondents aged 18 to 29 opposed Leung’s electoral reform proposal, considerably higher than the average rate of 39 percent recorded across all surveyed age groups.
This apparent identity crisis has also sown disagreement within the pan-democratic camp itself. While Hong Kong’s democratic movement has long been considered an integral part of broader calls for greater democratic freedoms in Greater China as a whole, many are now espousing a different, less pan-Chinese view.
On April 27, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), a major organiser of the Occupy movement in 2014, announced that it will not participate in this year’s planned June 4 candlelight vigil in remembrance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident in Beijing. It has been hinted that the HKFS decision was made under pressure from students of member universities who argue that political movements on the mainland are irrelevant to Hong Kong.
This is the first time that the group will not be officially represented at the vigil, which has been held consistently for 26 years
With rising sentiment supporting independence among Hong Kong’s democratic activists, Beijing has made its position clear. For the central government, upholding the NPC framework is a matter of asserting its sovereignty and authority over Hong Kong.
With such a mentality, Beijing is not arguing that the NPC framework does not serve as a screening mechanism. Instead, it is emphasising its legal authority over constitutional change in Hong Kong and its practical concerns over what it calls the “radical” aspirations of the pan-democratic groups.
For example, in a strong show of support for the Hong Kong government’s proposed reform plan, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei described Leung’s proposed reforms as “legal, feasible, rational and practical.”
In an April 28 meeting with a delegation from the Hong Kong Bar Association, the territory’s top legal regulatory body, Li Fei, chairman of the Basic Law Committee in Beijing, said that the door for communication with pan-democrats would be open for as long as they recognised Hong Kong and the mainland as “one country.”
In previous months, Beijing officials have repeatedly said that the framework serves to ensure that the Hong Kong Chief Executive will be someone who “loves the country and loves Hong Kong,” a line that pro-Beijing Hong Kong officials have repeated in campaigns supporting the proposals.
On May 5, former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa said that those who challenge the legitimacy of the ruling status of the Chinese Communist Party “cannot serve as the Chief Executive.”
By stressing that the screening mechanism mainly targets “extreme” democrats who adopt a confrontational approach to Beijing, the Hong Kong authorities are hoping to sway political moderates among the pan-democrats.
On May 5, Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, an executive council member and former top aide to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, named moderate pan-democratic lawmakers Ronny Tong Ka-wah and Dennis Kwok as potential candidates for chief executive, citing their willingness to engage in dialogue with the central government. Both Tong and Kwok took part in the Bar Association’s biennial visit to Beijing.
However, this strategy has been criticised by some pro-establishment politicians as counter-productive, as, were they to publicly switch their stances, both Tong and Kwok could be seen as aiming to exploit a delicate political situation for personal gain. Tong himself responded that Law’s comments could put him under heavy pressure from his fellow pan-democrats. Both he and Kwok have since declared that they will not change their position.
Now, with the timeline set and the battle lines drawn, both sides have promised to take to the streets to swing public opinion. Many are concerned that more Occupy-style protests will re-emerge, especially after protesters representing both sides clashed outside the Leg-
Co building on the very day when the reform plan was announced.
With pan-democrats already reported to be planning “the second Occupy” movement outside the LegCo building when the reform package goes to a vote, the Hong Kong police, it has been alleged, have made plans to mobilise 8,000 police officers during this period.
Regardless of the final result of this contentious LegCo vote, Hong Kong may witness greater divisions within its already splintering society.