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China's hard line toward Hong Kong democracy faces election test
[HONG KONG] Since thousands of Hong Kong students blocked city streets two years ago to protest a restrictive plan for promised elections, the government's response to democratic demands hasn't wavered: Put aside the political fights, enjoy being part of China, prosper together.
That take-or-leave-it approach to managing Hong Kong will be put to the test Sunday, with almost 4 million voters eligible to choose 70 members of the former British colony's Legislative Council.
The once-in-four-year election has drawn almost 300 candidates as a new crop of more radical activists seek a platform to challenge Beijing and others urge a more accommodating approach to bridge widening political divides.
A strong showing by a handful of so-called "localist" contenders associated with advocacy for self-determination or even independence from China - once unthinkable positions - risks reviving tensions over Beijing's increasingly strong grip that spurred the failed "Occupy" protests in 2014.
The results may also impact the future of unpopular Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, a target of campaign attacks from a loose coalition across the political spectrum.
"There are Hong Kong people totally frustrated and they see the situation as one where moderate approaches don't work," said Michael Davis, a former law professor who taught at city universities from 1985 until retiring this year.
"There is simply a radicalisation of Hong Kong politics very much caused by the behaviour of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments."
Since the last legislative election in 2012, the Asian financial hub has been rocked by a series of political clashes over whether China is preserving the "high degree of autonomy" it promised before regaining sovereignty almost two decades ago.
Student rallies forced the government to abandon a plan for patriotic education in schools, protests against cross-border traders prompted a reduction in mainland visitors and localists were charged in connection with a riot that injured scores of police officers last February.
Even so, the emergence of more-radical parties has fragmented the pro-democracy side, which already faces steep odds to capturing a legislative majority since 30 seats are set aside for members of professions and industry groups.
Further fractures could cost the opposition its veto power, allowing the government to push through a controversial election plan or long-dormant national security legislation.
Starry Lee, the head of Hong Kong's largest pro-Beijing party, urged an end to political divisions in a recorded message as she waved to passersby in Hong Kong's Central district Wednesday. A pamphlet handed out by Hong Kong Television Network Ltd Chairman Ricky Wong, an independent calling for Mr Leung to be replaced, says a "powerlessness and helplessness has permeated every section of society regardless of age, wealth and education."
The Lunar New Year riot revealed how much political lines have hardened even if enthusiasm for the masses rallies has waned. Mr Leung refused to speak to leaders of the 79-day Occupy protests and offered no changes to Beijing's plan for electing his successor next year, which would've required a pro-establishment panel of insiders to screen candidates before a citywide vote.
That proposal died in the Legislative Council last year after democracy advocates denied Mr Leung the two-thirds majority he needed to make it law. Whether the opposition can maintain or expand their current 27 seats in the chamber and preserve their veto power Sunday will be closely watched.
Mr Leung hasn't said if he'll seek an extension when his term ends next year, and told the South China Morning Post in June that he might not make up his mind before September.
"The chief executive stressed that any decision on standing for re-election has nothing to do with the LegCo election," the government said in June.
A lack of reliable polling and a system in which lists of candidates vie for multiple seats in each district makes predicting the outcome difficult.
"This is the first widespread test of public opinion since the street occupations," said Danny Gittings, an associate law professor at HKU Space and author of Introduction to the Hong Kong Basic Law.
The vote will indicate "the future direction of Hong Kong and whether people do still support the pro-democracy cause in as large numbers as they used to," Mr Gittings said.
The independence movement presents an explosive challenge to both camps. China's top representative in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, blamed the riots on "radical separatists" who were "inclined toward terrorism".
The government banned six candidates from running on the grounds they advocated violating the city's Basic Law, which holds that Hong Kong is an "inalienable" part of China.
A Chinese University of Hong Kong poll released in July found that more than 17 per cent supported independence after the current framework for Hong Kong's autonomy expires in 2047, even though fewer than 4 per cent considered the outcome possible.
"We badly need the incoming Legislative Council to respond to the mood of the community and generate some hope that the downward spiral and quality of our governance can be reversed," said Anson Chan, the city's former No 2 official.
"The more the Hong Kong and central governments try to stamp on what are very legitimate grievances, the more these groups will proliferate, gain momentum and sadly threaten more extreme measures."