Hong Kong lawmakers reject election framework offered by Beijing

Hong Kong's legislature votes to reject a Beijing-drafted election plan that sparked street protests last fall

“No to Fake Democracy!” “We Want Real Elections!” “Have Our Say on Our Own Destiny!”

When tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets here last fall, angry about rules proposed by Communist Party leaders in Beijing for Hong Kong’s 2017 election, those were three of the main rallying cries. Printed on fliers and hoisted aloft on banners, they became mantras of the crowds who riled Chinese officials and captured the world’s attention.

On Thursday, more than six months after police swept the last holdouts from their encampments around government headquarters in this semiautonomous territory of 7.3 million, one of those demands was finally met.

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council voted 28 to 8, with 34 lawmakers missing in action, to reject the election rules drafted by Beijing, the “fake democracy” so abhorred by the demonstrators.

It remains to be seen whether Thursday’s vote will lend momentum to the campaign for genuine democracy in Hong Kong or stall the movement and prompt sterner measures from Chinese leaders.

“Even though there’s no progress on democracy, at least we didn’t take a step back,” said Dixon Ming Sing, associate professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

But Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief secretary, who had been responsible for shepherding the proposal through the legislature, warned that the outcome would cast a long shadow. “I can’t begin to predict when electoral reform will be back on track ever again,” she said.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 via an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.” The territory was allowed to keep its own English-based legal system and a wide range of civil liberties and was granted “a high degree of autonomy” for 50 years under a mini-constitution known as the Basic Law.

An “ultimate aim” enshrined in the Basic Law was the selection of Hong Kong’s top leader, the chief executive, “by universal suffrage” and “in accordance with democratic procedures.” Candidates, it said, would be nominated by a “broadly representative” committee.

Party leaders in Beijing repeatedly said the election framework put forward last summer by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress was China’s best offer of democracy for Hong Kongers.

The framework would have allowed Hong Kong’s 5 million eligible voters for the first time to cast ballots directly for the territory’s chief executive. But it would have limited their choice to two or three candidates approved by a nominating committee stacked with pro-establishment figures.

The demonstrators who took to the streets in what became known as the Umbrella Movement demanded that Beijing back down and offer voters a “genuine” choice of candidates. But after 10 weeks of sit-ins, clashes with police and one brief round of dialogue between Hong Kong leaders and protest organizers, no concessions were forthcoming.

That left Hong Kong legislators to vote on the package set forth by Beijing. Their rejection means that, in effect, Hong Kong is back where it started: In the 2017 election, the chief executive will continue to be chosen by a 1,200-member committee dominated by pro-Beijing loyalists.

A recent poll showed that 47% of Hong Kongers endorsed the Beijing-proposed framework, with 38% opposing and 15% undecided. Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said that although such surveys suggest a city divided nearly evenly, many of those who backed the bill did not like it but hoped it would lead to greater change down the line.

The proposal had been widely expected to be defeated because a bloc of 27 legislators known as the pan-democrats had enough votes to veto the package, which required a two-thirds majority in the 70-seat Legislative Council for approval.

But the actual tally turned out to be a surprise. A group of pro-Beijing lawmakers had left the room in an attempt to delay the vote but ended up missing the chance to participate. That led to the lopsided results.

In a late-afternoon news conference, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said that the public had been denied the right to universal suffrage, leaving “millions of Hong Kong people gravely disappointed.” He said the government had worked hard to forge consensus, but now it was “time to move on.”

In the next two years, he said, the government will focus on economic and livelihood issues, key grievances seen as underpinning the 2014 protests.

Davis called Thursday’s vote “a disaster” for Leung's Beijing-backed administration.

“Whatever excuse the pro-establishment politicians offer, they essentially gave a resounding ‘no’ vote to the government's bill,” he said. “The government will have to explain how a year of effort and submission to Beijing on its part produced only eight supporting votes.”

A spokesman for the State Council's Hong Kong and Mainland Affairs Office called the nay voters “selfish” and said the results were “a departure from mainstream opinion and from what the central government wanted to see.”

Jason Y. Ng, a Hong Kong attorney and author who is working on a book about last year's protests, said the main question now is whether a strong leader will emerge to pick up the mantle of the pro-democracy movement.

Many of the student activists who led last fall's movement have been keeping a lower profile in recent months, and the Hong Kong Federation of Students, which was at the vanguard of the demonstrations, has fractured. Quite a few protesters, Ng said, are critical of what they see as poor decisions made during the final weeks of the protests.

Within the legislature, some pan-democratic lawmakers have indicated that they may not run for reelection.

The vote on the 2017 election rules isn’t the first time that Hong Kongers have successfully pushed back against policies backed by Beijing. Protests in 2003 forced officials to set aside consideration of a contentious anti-sedition bill; in 2012, demonstrators against a national education curriculum succeeded in scuttling that proposal.

But the fight over the 2017 election framework was the deepest act of defiance yet. With mainland authorities insisting that the vetting of candidates for chief executive was justified and necessary as a matter of national security, many Hong Kongers came to realize that “one country” would always trump “two systems.”

“Now we can see the ‘one country, two systems’ promise is bankrupt,” said Joshua Wong, the student leader who became the face of the Umbrella Movement. “We used to presume the human rights condition in China would catch up with ours in 50 years — at least that still was our fantasy even into recent years.”

Two weeks ago, at the commemorations of China’s bloody 1989 crackdown on democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, some Hong Kong student leaders torched copies of the Basic Law. There also have been calls to amend the mini-constitution to better accommodate Hong Kongers’ political aspirations.

Seeing that the goal for direct election for chief executive had been shifted by Beijing from 2007 to 2012, and then to 2017, Wong and others said focusing on trying to reform election rules may now be too narrow of an approach.

“Democracy is more than about elections. If we don’t fight for our shot at self-determination, we won’t have any safeguard for our freedoms,” said Wong. “If we keep on playing their electoral game, we’d be like guinea pigs on a wheel.”

Ng said he believes Hong Kong will see more protests and acts of civil disobedience because the concerns and frustrations that underpinned demands for more representative government, including a yawning gap between rich and poor, sky-high real estate costs and huge numbers of mainland tourists, remain unaddressed and unresolved.

“We are all waiting for the next spark. It's like there is a gas leak in the city, and all it takes is a spark for the house to blow up,” he said. “All the frustrations and pent-up anger will come to a head.”

Special correspondent Law reported from Hong Kong and Times staff writer Makinen from Beijing. Nicole Liu and Harvard Zhang in the Times Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from China

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

2:09 p.m.: This article was updated with more background information.

5:30 a.m.: This article was updated with more reaction.

June 18, 1:43 a.m.: This article was updated with quotes from Michael Davis and Leung Chun-ying.

This article was originally published on June 17 at 10:48 p.m.

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