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How Hong Kong lawmakers rejected Beijing's 'sham' democracy plan (+video)

A misguided walkout by pro-establishment lawmakers allowed for a quick and eye-popping victory for democrats after a year of tussle over how to elect the next leader of Hong Kong. 

A tiny band of pro-democracy politicians in one of the world’s most open economies has poked a finger into the eye of its sovereign power.

Hong Kong democrats vetoed a dictate today by China’s communist leaders over how to select the city’s next chief executive, on grounds that it violated international principles for a free and fair election.

Thursday's much-anticipated vote on an electoral reform proposal came after months of peaceful street protest last year and was perhaps the most important on Hong Kong’s democratic development since the former British colony reverted to China in 1997, observers say.

The proposed reform, drawn up in Beijing, would have allowed Hong Kong’s five million voters a direct vote for the first time, but only for candidates that were approved by China, which democrats called a “sham.”

The veto makes Hong Kong the first city in China to formally and publicly reject a major policy tailored for it by Beijing. But while the rejection is a blow to Beijing-backed chief executive Leung Chun-ying, it now leaves Hong Kong with the same system that produced him, namely a 1200-member election committee over which the public has no say. 

"The strength of the recent protests have been to put Hong Kong and the world on notice about the increasing erosion of the ‘one country, two systems’ commitments,” says Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong and democracy advocate. “This puts the Hong Kong government in a difficult position. Its credibility as the guardian of Hong Kong's autonomy has been deeply eroded by its submissive approach to Beijing's designs.”

Walkout ends in defeat

In no small irony, democrats in the city legislative council today had unexpected help from some 30 pro-Beijing lawmakers who tried to extend the proceedings by holding a walkout. But their move, watched live on screens across the territory, was ill advised and reduced to shambles what had been billed as 12 hours of debate over two days about Hong Kong's electoral blueprint.

The final tally was 28 votes against Beijing’s plan in the 70-member legislature, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass. Only eight pro-Beijing supporters were left in the council after the walkout, supposedly done to give rural strongman Lau Wong-fat – a staunch China supporter who was en route – time to arrive for the vote.

Part of the miscalculation by the government camp was that speeches were expected to go on for hours. But suddenly, no members asked to speak. With the pro-democracy faction united and holding more than one-third of seats, the proposal failed to pass.

Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, leader of the Business and Professionals Association for Hong Kong and the walkout organizer, later apologized. Pro-democracy politicians could not contain their glee. Labour Party leader Lee Cheuk-yan said: “History is full of accidents and history is on our side.”

After the veto, the legislature’s President Tsang Yok-sing took up that comment, saying to reporters: “I believe this is a very unfortunate accident. This [veto] means the door will close on communication between Beijing and the democrats for some period of time. I am very worried for the development of Hong Kong.”

Chief executive feels the heat

Mr. Leung, the chief executive, blamed the pro-democracy politicians for the outcome and urged them “not to mislead the Hong Kong people into any further thinking that democratic aspirations … could be satisfied” by appealing to China or trying to change the policy agreed by China's parliament last year. 

Speaking on the eve of the vote, Anson Chan – a former No. 2 Hong Kong leader under both the British and China – said that Mr. Leung “does not realize that he has failed abysmally – he thinks that Beijing thinks that he has handled things well. I don’t think so."

Behind the rejection of Beijing's electoral formula is the deeper and thorny issue of identity. Many Hong Kong youth jeer at events where China’s national anthem is played.

Polls indicate that many people here see themselves first as Hong Kongers and aspire to genuinely democratic governance. Polls show they want a fair chance, something many feel they had, at least in spirit, under the British, but that they see as slipping away under China.

“That the local government effectively found no voice even to explore a range of compromises offered during the recent consultations underlines its complete inability to guard Hong Kong's autonomy,” Mr. Davis added after the vote. “This credibility problem will plague the government on all future initiatives."

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