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Hong Kong lawmakers open debate on election plan that sparked mass protests

In Hong Kong, a theatrical debate as lawmakers take up election overhaul

Legislators in this semiautonomous Chinese territory of 7 million began debate Wednesday on a controversial plan to overhaul Hong Kong’s election rules that sparked mass protests in the city last year. Barring any last-minute side-switching, the proposal looked headed for defeat, but the theatrics were anything but muted.

Inside the chambers, legislators used props including large cartoons to illustrate their points and quoted Scripture and Shakespeare to bolster their arguments.

“To be, or not to be. To kowtow, or to veto. This is the dilemma Beijing has put us in with an electoral framework offer Hong Kongers no real choice,” said Alan Leong, leader of the pro-democracy Civic Party. “I won’t waver; I’ll cast my ‘no’ vote. This is a vote that will live up to the history and the promise of our democratic movement.”

Under a scorching sun, hundreds of supporters and opponents of the bill gathered outside the government headquarters in the Admiralty District.

Activists who have derided the plan as “fake universal suffrage” sat on paving stones, corralled by metal barriers separating them from their more vociferous opposition. 

“We’re here to do our share. We plan to sit here till it’s over,” said Peter Ng, 58, a retired property manager who came with his wife, Ophelia, and was sitting among a group of students.

Demonstrators supporting the electoral proposal used speakers to broadcast a barrage of pronouncements, practically drowning out the audio feed of legislators’ speeches that was being played outside. “These people are anarchists,” said Man Yu-ming, a local council member, dismissing the opposing camp.

Lawmakers are debating a proposed framework drafted by authorities in Beijing for Hong Kong’s next election for chief executive in 2017. Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to the sovereignty of Communist-run China in 1997 under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.”

The election framework would, for the first time, allow Hong Kong citizens to cast ballots directly for the territory’s top leader, but would limit their choice to two or three candidates endorsed by a screening panel expected to be composed mainly of “pro-Beijing” members.

Until now, the chief executive has been chosen by a 1,200-member committee.

Critics say that would give Hong Kong only the veneer of true democracy, while supporters argue the plan is a step in the right direction. If the proposal goes down to defeat, the chief executive will continue to be elected by the 1,200-member committee, and prospects for any further changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system in the near future would appear unlikely.

In the run-up to the vote, now expected to take place Thursday or Friday, some groups opposed to the framework have organized several night rallies around the main government complex, where tens of thousands of people massed last fall in unprecedented street demonstrations that lasted 10 weeks and seriously riled Communist leaders in Beijing.

For the framework to be implemented, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council must vote to adopt it. But a bloc of legislators known as the Pan-Democrats has vowed to block its passage, and they appear to have the numbers to do so.

A recent opinion poll showed 47% of Hong Kongers endorsing the Beijing-proposed framework, with 38% opposing and 15% undecided. 

Hundreds of police were deployed in and around the government complex. On Monday, authorities announced they had arrested 10 people in a possible bomb plot, though it was unclear if there was any connection to this week’s vote in the Legislative Council.

Some opponents of the Beijing-drafted framework who came to express their position Wednesday were taken by surprise by the number of people who arrived, in highly orchestrated fashion, to demonstrate in favor of its passage.

The supporters arrived at the government complex Wednesday morning by the busload, organized in neighborhood groups. Many donned white shirts emblazoned with numbers, like sports jerseys.

They came bearing hundreds of identical placards, which based upon the boxes they came in appeared to have been express-delivered from nearby cities in mainland China. A number of the “pro-democracy” camp said they believed at least some of the demonstrators expressing support for the bill were being paid or otherwise enticed to show up.

Leafing through a newspaper and fanning herself with a sign, Christina Leung, 19, a college freshman who recently finished her final exams, said she could’ve stayed home and relaxed. Yet she chose to start her summer holidays by making her voice heard.  

“It seems to me the other side has learned from our movement to counter us with numbers,” said Leung. “It’s a pity that these people may not be here on their initiative and for what they believe in."

Special correspondent Law reported from Hong Kong and Times staff writer Makinen from Beijing.

Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from China

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


5:23 a.m.: This story has been updated with a quote from lawmaker Alan Leong and other details.

This story was originally published at 3:32 a.m.