Kin Cheung/AP
Pro-democracy lawmakers display placards against during a briefing session in Hong Kong Monday. The legislators disrupted a Beijing official’s speech as he sought to explain a decision to tightly limit voting reforms for the southern Chinese financial hub. The placards read 'Break a promise' and 'Shameful.'

Hong Kong citizenry stirs as Beijing nixes direct democracy

Thousands of Hong Kong citizens are expected in coming weeks to stage protests after China announced it would screen the nominees for Hong Kong's chief executive.

Hong Kong protest leaders rallied their forces Sunday night ahead of an expected civil disobedience to block downtown traffic – after China’s leaders officially said that Asia’s commercial hub would not be allowed to have the direct democracy it has long anticipated.

The National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Beijing determined Sunday that all Hong Kong citizens may vote in the coming 2017 elections, but that Beijing would screen the nominees for the top job of chief executive.

Democrats and many ordinary Hong Kong people see this as a betrayal of the original understanding by which Great Britain handed its highly developed colony over to China in 1997 – and a twisting of the concept of “universal suffrage” they were promised in 2007.  

“Today is the darkest day of the history of Hong Kong’s democratic development,” said Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a founder of the movement "Occupy Central With Love and Peace” that is planning to protest.

Despite warnings by Beijing, thousands of Hong Kong citizens, led by law professors and student leaders, are expected in coming weeks to block traffic downtown, boycott university classes, and protest in strategic locations.

Hong Kong enjoys a special autonomous status in China, but is engaged in a bewildering array of complicated reform procedures with Beijing – which many Hong Kong democrats view as a competition of values between civil society in Hong Kong and Communist Party authority in Beijing. Amid an expansion of wealth and power under President Xi Jinping, Beijing is turning increasingly authoritarian. And Hong Kong democrats fear that their city is losing its distinct character and identity, which was forged by a combination of diverse ethnic groups and held together by a disciplined set of civil servants drawing from its British heritage, and until now, a lack of corruption and crony capitalism.

“Some of us hoped at the last minute that Beijing would get this right, but now it doesn’t look like that,” says Michael Davis, a constitutional law scholar at Hong Kong University. “What I see is a steady fear that Hong Kong will lose its distinctiveness and become simply another city in China. Beijing seems to want to recreate Hong Kong in its image.”

Beijing legal scholars counter that Hong Kong is taking a “lop-sided” view of the formula of “one country, two systems” by which the colony was handed over. 

Tensions between Beijing and Hong Kong spiked in June when China issued a rare “White Paper” on Hong Kong. The paper asserted that Beijing will interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law and asserted that in the future, members of the judiciary – Hong Kong is proud of its independent judges – will be chosen on the basis of “love of country” and “patriotism,” and not be allowed further recruiting of international judges.

Hong Kong democrats are concerned about the future of young people here who don’t have mainland connections, and whose place in business and firms are being pushed aside by the children of elites in China. For the first time in two decades, wealthy Hong Kong households have been making inquiries about other places to live, according to sources in corporate human resource offices.

Many also worry over the increased push by Beijing to speak Mandarin in a Cantonese-speaking culture; the erosion of press and academic freedoms; and incidents like the recent early morning home raid of two leading democrats – described as part of an investigation of corruption, but whose timing ahead of the Occupy Central action is questioned.

“Beijing is acting like a mother that is telling her child, ‘You are rebellious. I give you all this freedom and you are ungrateful,’” comments a mother of two who says she was born in Hong Kong and educated abroad. She did not want to use her name. “I think many of us fear this process of mainlandization.”

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