Hong Kong's politics - A territory divided
Tensions rise as Hong Kong's legislature prepares to vote on fiercely debated political-reform measures.
NEARLY a quarter of a century ago, China published a mini-constitution by which Hong Kong would be ruled after the British withdrawal in 1997. The document, known as the Basic Law, set an eventual goal of introducing “universal suffrage” in elections for the territory’s leader. On June 17th Hong Kong’s legislature will begin debating a reform package aimed at fulfilling this aim. The result will probably leave the territory no closer to achieving it, and its 7m citizens bitterly divided.
The proposal to be presented by the government to the Legislative Council, or Legco as it is usually called, would grant ordinary citizens a vote when the territory’s next chief executive is selected in 2017. But it would limit their choice to three candidates. These must first be approved by a 1,200-member committee stacked with members of Hong Kong’s business and political elite who are supporters of the Communist Party. The package needs the support of two-thirds of Legco in order to pass. Pro-democracy politicians, who control just over one-third of the seats, have vowed to veto it. Its adoption, they say, would be tantamount to accepting sham democracy.
Opinion polls suggest that Hong Kongers are evenly split between supporters of the package and those who agree that the democrats should vote it down. The government is eager that it be passed. Officials say that even if the proposed voting system is not perfect, it is far better than nothing and a good basis for further reforms. Leaders in Beijing want it passed too: they want to be seen to be fulfilling their commitments in the Basic Law, while keeping control of Hong Kong by ensuring that mechanisms remain in place to prevent an outspoken critic of the Communist Party from being elected as chief executive. Senior Hong Kong officials tried to drum up support for the proposal by touring around in open-top buses and making speeches. Their appearances were dogged by protests, however. They attracted as much derision as support.
The outcome of Legco’s vote on the package, which is likely to take place by June 19th, will not make a huge difference to Hong Kong’s political environment. A veto would mean that the current system for choosing the chief executive would remain in place: there would be multiple candidates for the post, with the winner chosen by the same kind of pro-party committee that would vet candidates under the proposed new system. The party has tried to avoid selecting candidates who are strongly disliked by the public. The same kind of people are likely to be chosen to stand whether the proposal is passed or not.
Officials, however, worry about events on the streets. The pro-democracy protests that erupted in Hong Kong late last year, resulting in the occupation of several main roads by demonstrators for 11 weeks, were a sign of growing frustration among young people with the party’s hardline attitude towards democracy as well as with the impotence of pro-democracy politicians in helping to bring it about. Thousands of police are expected to be deployed outside Legco to prevent demonstrators from storming it during the debate (about 4,000 people marched in sweltering 33-degree heat on June 14th urging Legco to reject the package). The police are likely to be on even higher alert after the arrests of ten people who were allegedly involved in making explosives. Local media say the police believe the suspects wanted to cause disruption during the proceedings in Legco.
Even after the vote, tensions are likely to remain high. Pro-democracy politicians want to turn elections to Legco next year into a de facto referendum on the leadership of the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying. Mr Leung is expected to seek re-election in 2017. Even without a public vote, he is not necessarily a shoo-in. After massive protests in 2003 against an unpopular chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, the party withdrew its support for him—eventually forcing him to resign. Hong Kong’s democratic shortcomings do not mean the public always lacks a voice. The Economist
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