Hong Kong democracy: three questions on the brewing battle with Beijing

A crucial vote this week in Hong Kong's legislature will test the resolve of democrats opposed to Beijing's formula for electing the city's future leaders.

Vincent Yu/AP
Police officers stand guard near a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the pro-democracy movement, outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong Tuesday, June 16, 2015, one day before a crucial vote by lawmakers on Beijing-backed election reforms that sparked huge street protests last year.

The streets of Hong Kong are again stirring with demonstrations and bright-colored umbrellas ahead of a sensitive vote by lawmakers this week on the democratic future of the former British colony.

As tension mounts and as police warn about violence, Beijing is pressing the city's legislature to accept what it says are improved new rules on how to elect a new leader, starting in 2017. Three new polls show a slim majority of Hong Kong residents disagree with Beijing's rules. Lawmakers will start debating the matter Wednesday, followed by a decision a day or two later. 

Many in Hong Kong, a financial hub with a population of seven million that was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997, feel Beijing is reneging on a promise to allow “full democracy” and instead forcing "fake democracy" onto the electorate. 

Last August Chinese authorities issued an edict that allows the first “one person, one vote” direct elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive. But the rules stipulate that only “patriotic” candidates approved by Beijing may stand for office.

That brought the largest and most sustained pro-democracy protests in China since 1989, when students occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Students and pro-democracy advocates immobilized Hong Kong's downtown by camping on the streets, creating weeks of tension and speculation over how China would respond.  

What is the significance of this week's vote?

The vote pits the chief executive, CY Leung, and his pro-Beijing forces against pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong.

But for the democracy camp, the vote is not a technical issue of management but part of a larger question about whether Hong Kong can retain its distinct identity, with youth at the forefront of the debate over Beijing's increased influence. They have voiced repeated concern over Hong Kong’s ability to stay relatively free and open, to continue emphasizing its Cantonese language and its British-derived civil service, and to remain attractive as a hub of global capital. 

For China the issue is of exercising control in a “one country, two-systems” formula under which Hong Kong enjoys what is called a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047. A People’s Daily editorial last week framed the rules as “legal, sensible, and reasonable” and said China does not view kindly Hong Kong democrats' effort to “challenge its authority,” as the Wall Street Journal notes.

Will Beijing’s rules for Hong Kong pass the legislature?

It may be a stretch: The pro-Beijing camp reportedly needs four democrats to reach the two-thirds vote needed. Yet no lawmakers so far appear willing to jump ship.

"We hope it can pass smoothly," a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Friday in Beijing. "This is beneficial for Hong Kong's long-term development."

Beijing for the first time may also be losing the hearts and minds of many voters. On Friday a new set of polls culled from three Hong Kong colleges showed a majority of citizens disagreeing with China on its approach, a first. The Chinese University of Hong Kong, the University of Hong Kong, and Polytechnic University show disagreement by a margin of roughly 43 to 41 percent.  

"If the pan-democrats stubbornly insist on vetoing the proposal, democracy in Hong Kong will come to a standstill," said Song Ru'an, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official in Hong Kong, as quoted by Reuters.

Could the protests turn violent?

Ten people were arrested in the city Monday; police said they had seized explosives, and authorities have been warning about potential unrest. 

“Police will not tolerate any violent and illegal behavior and will take resolute actions to restore public order,” according to police official Cheung Tak-keung as quoted by the New York Times. 

However, democracy protests in Hong Kong, including marches through the city, have long been peaceful and well-ordered, and usually are family affairs. There was a brief confrontation last fall when protesters faced with police tear gas opened their umbrellas to block police clubs. The action helped coin the phrase “Umbrella Movement.”

At the time, the Christian Science Monitor reported that the protests engineered by Hong Kong students were:

... the sweetest, politest, and least threatening mass mobilization on record. Walking through the young people camped out Wednesday on Harcourt Road in central Hong Kong I came across high school girls doing their homework on their knees, a young woman spraying the air with perfumed water, a work team sorting recyclables from other garbage, and countless young couples pushing their babies in strollers. Not a burned car, nor a smashed shop window in sight. And no policemen either.

Still, tensions remain high. And if the bill favored by Beijing “is passed somehow miraculously,” Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a longtime China watcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told reporters, “there will be huge demonstrations and possibly very ugly clashes with the police.”

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