Will China vet Hong Kong election? Protests hang in the balance

The occupation of Hong Kong's central financial district could start early next week, after Beijing releases its guidelines Sunday on how the city's next leader will be elected. Beijing has promised Hong Kong will have 'universal suffrage' by 2017.

Liau Chung-ren/Reuters/File
A protester carries a placard during a mass protest demanding universal suffrage in Hong Kong July 1, 2014.

With Beijing signaling it is unlikely to allow the direct democracy in Hong Kong that many here say is overdue, protesters may “occupy” and block parts of China’s most significant international financial hub as early as next week. 

The contretemps is seen as a fight over Hong Kong’s future identity and has brought hundreds of thousands to the street in recent months. It has sparked an often furious debate that weighs the potential effectiveness of a mass protest that could cripple the city's commercial center – against a growing worry about Beijing's increased willingness to interfere in Hong Kong affairs. 

On Sunday China's standing committee is expected to hand down a new framework for how Hong Kong's leader may be elected. Beijing promised in 2007 that Hong Kong would have "universal suffrage" by the 2017 elections. 

Yet while Beijing has hinted it will support “one man, one vote” for Hong Kong in 2017, which it terms "universal suffrage," it has also made clear that the party will essentially screen and control who is chosen as a candidate, and limit the number to three.

Democrats say this is tantamount to a broken promise if not outright fraud, given years of being assured of greater autonomy and self-rule. They want to nominate a democrat and offer voters a choice that is not already pre-approved by mainland China. They say Beijing keeps moving the goal line every time they are about to score. 

“We have been cheated again and again, democracy has been postponed again and again,” says Martin Lee, a leading Hong Kong democrat who helped draft the Basic Law that governs the city, in a Monitor interview. 

“We should have had democracy on July 1, 1997,” said Mr. Lee, who recently joined the "Occupy Central for Love and Peace" movement, which threatens to occupy the downtown financial district known as Central. “But they postponed. In 2007 we were told 2012, and again we were denied. And now we are being given a formula where Beijing makes decisions for us by screening our nominees. Beijing is now distressing even moderate democrats." 

Pro-democrat politicians say that if Beijing's reforms offer so little real reform, there will be little choice but to protest in Central. University students are ready to boycott classes, says Alex Chow-Yong, leader of Hong Kong's Federation of Students. 

Meanwhile at the foreign correspondents club in Hong Kong today, the dean of the Tsinghua University School of Law in Beijing said that the ruling Communist Party sought to "protect" Hong Kong's tycoons and business elites from unruly democrats seeking reform. 

“A small group of people, a small group of elites … control the destiny of Hong Kong…. That's a reality,” dean Wang Zhenmin said, in an example offered by pro-democrats of the kind of influence Beijing exerts on the city. 

Hong Kong’s leader, the chief executive, is currently elected by an 1,200-person body hand picked by Beijing. In the new reforms, an expanded group  would choose the chief executive candidates. But the body will be elected from the same constituencies as before, a select group chosen through the criteria of wealth, status, and patriotism or "love of country."

Disagreement over government for the former British colony dates to the promulgation of the Basic Law in April 1990. The law is Hong Kong’s constitutional document and sets forth the powers and rights inherent in the “one-country two-systems” formula. The period of handover is to last at least 50 years, dating from 1997. 

Under Basic Law, Hong Kong is permitted to conduct its own external policies, have its own currency, patrol its own borders, set its own behavioral norms, and is exempt from mainland taxes. The city has a relatively free press and a decidedly different tone than the mainland.

At a crossroads 

Hong Kong protest became white hot in late spring when Beijing issued an unusual White Paper declaring that Hong Kong affairs were ultimately decided by Beijing. The paper hit the public like a small sledgehammer – and a private Occupy Central "democracy referendum" on how to nominate popular candidates that got 100,000 votes last fall got a whopping 800,000 votes after the paper came out. 

This fall is considered a crossroads point ahead of the 2017 election. But while democrats define universal suffrage as direct elections, Beijing is indicating this will not take place. 

Mr. Wang, the law school dean, described China as “a mother to the people of Hong Kong” and that its actions toward “its sons and daughters” are “sincere and its intentions are pure.” He suggested that Hong Kongers take the offer of smaller but “realistic” proposals on the table. 

In recent days, Beijing has put out an array of new rhetorical position analysts say are designed to prepare Hong Kongers to accept greater oversight and more authority from the center. 

In the official China Daily, officials are quoted saying that Hong Kongers focus too exclusively on the “two-systems” part of the “one country-two systems” formula. When an Occupy Central leader Benny Tai Yiu-ting said that protestors would deploy if Beijing did not adhere to “international standards” of democracy and “universal suffrage,” Chinese state media quoted officials saying there are no international standards and that Beijing may interpret the Basic Law in whatever way it chooses. 

Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly identified the size of the group that currently elects Hong Kong's chief executive.

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