Protesters clashed with Hong Kong police Monday at a heated news conference about limits imposed by mainland Chinese authorities on the territory’s 2017 election.
Demonstrators have promised a wave of civil disobedience in the semi-autonomous Chinese region, although it remains unclear whether they can sustain the momentum against tremendous pressure from Beijing.
Monday’s fracas broke out at a conference center where Li Fei, deputy secretary general of China’s National People’s Congress standing committee, came to defend the election framework announced Sunday by his panel. As he approached the lectern to begin his speech, Hong Kong lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung began shouting him down.
He and dozens of lawmakers and demonstrators unfurled a banner, chanted slogans and brandished placards accusing Beijing of “breaching its promise.” Activists dressed in black and wearing yellow ribbons, a symbol of the democracy movement, stood both inside and outside the venue, according to the South China Morning Post.
Police escorted some lawmakers out of the auditorium, while others were dragged. At least four protesters standing outside were sprayed with pepper spray when they tried to force their way past metal barricades to get inside the hall, local media reported.
Li told the invited guests that Beijing would not tolerate a Hong Kong leader who does not heed the views of the Communist-run mainland. “Anyone who does not love the country, love Hong Kong or is confrontational towards the central government shall not be the chief executive," he said.
Mainland authorities had agreed to let Hong Kongers directly elect their leader in 2017; currently, the chief executive is selected by a 1,200-member committee. But on Sunday, Li’s committee ruled that only two or three candidates will be allowed to run and all must be endorsed by more than half of a nominating committee aligned with Beijing’s interests.
A coalition of democratic activists in the former British territory say the decision amounts to “fake democracy” because it would restrict candidates to those with a Beijing-friendly viewpoint, and have vowed to contest the move with civil disobedience.
Benny Tai, a constitutional law professor and leader of the Occupy Central protest group, told a rally Sunday night that there would be “wave after wave of protest action.”
High school student Joshua Wong Chi-Feng, 17, a leader of the student group Scholarism, said in a phone interview Monday that his group has organized a student boycott of classes in universities and secondary schools starting early this month.
Li noted that Hong Kong’s Legislative Council must endorse the standing committee’s framework; otherwise, direct voting may be delayed until the 2022 election. Leung and a number of other lawmakers from a loose grouping of political parties known as the pan-democrats have vowed to stop the changes, though in the past their alliance has proven fragile.
Wong said he believed the limits imposed by Beijing might forge a stronger front among the pan-democrat legislators.
“While I am quite disappointed in the decision, I think it is a chance for the pan-democrats to be more united,” he said.
Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based political analyst, said he believes there is a 60% to 70% chance that the Hong Kong legislature will reject the framework outlined by Beijing on Sunday. And there is no chance of reopening consultations, he said.
“Beijing has imposed a set of harsh and draconian rules to prevent any pro-democracy politician from becoming a legal candidate for chief executive in 2017,” he said. “Hong Kong people are very angry but there is nothing they can do. The pan-democratic groups will never negotiate with Beijing again because they have been let down time and again.”
Still, he said, Occupy Central and other allied groups will likely find it hard to sustain their momentum and muster large protests. Rather, he expects they will increasingly turn their attention to longer-term civic education and political mobilization.
“They hope to pass to the younger generation of Hong Kong the importance of safeguarding the territory’s core values, which include rule of law, freedom of media and assembly, political neutrality of the civil service, and of course, elections under universal norms,” he said. Their work, he added, “is geared toward awakening Hong Kong citizens that unless the territory can safeguard its core values, it will soon degenerate into a second-class Chinese coastal city far behind Shanghai and Guangzhou.”
Ding Xueliang, a professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the election limits handed down Sunday are about more than Hong Kong.
“For Beijing, it is very scary to have a new official in Hong Kong who does not listen to Beijing on major policy issues,” said Ding. “If a Hong Kong top official can challenge Beijing’s official [line], then it is risky that other places in the [country] can become encouraged by that.”
In contrast to Lam, Ding said he thought there was a significant chance that Hong Kong’s lawmakers might endorse the framework announced Sunday. One deciding factor, he said, may be the fact that Hong Kong anti-corruption investigators recently raided the house and offices of Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Labor Party and an alliance of pro-democracy groups.
Lee told reporters the raid was related to donations he had received from media mogul Jimmy Lai, who is known as staunchly anti-Beijing. Lee said that all donations have been open and transparent, and the lawmaker has not been charged with any violations.
At least one other lawmaker in Lee’s alliance, though, described the raid as “clear-cut political persecution” and said it was part of a campaign to smear democratic activists.
Ding said fears that such investigations might widen made the odds of the proposal passing much greater.
“In the beginning, it looked like that chance [of passage] was less that 50%, but the psychological impact against the members is very real,” he said. “It could expand against other members.”
Silbert is a special correspondent.
Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times