Pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo holds a yellow umbrella, symbol of the Occupy Central movement, as she speaks to protesters after a Beijing-backed electoral package was rejected, under Chinese and Hong Kong flags outside Legislative Council in Hong Kong on June 18, 2015
Tyrone Siu—Reuters
By Hannah Beech
June 18, 2015

Jubilation among Hong Kong’s democratic forces didn’t last long. Less than five hours after local lawmakers rejected Beijing’s plan for how the territory’s next leader will be chosen, China’s official Xinhua News Agency possibly declared the Hong Kong parliamentarians’ veto immaterial. The one-sentence bulletin from Xinhua announced:

BEIJING, June 18 (Xinhua) — Chinese top legislature on Thursday said its decision on Hong Kong’s electoral reforms last August will remain in force in the future, despite Hong Kong Legislative Council’s veto of the universal suffrage motion.

Last year, the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s largely rubber-stamp body, approved a plan by which Hong Kong voters could directly elect their next chief executive in 2017. Currently, Hong Kong’s top leader is chosen by a 1,200-strong committee that is seen as sympathetic to Beijing’s interests. There was, however, a catch to the NPC’s proposal: that same 1,200-strong committee would be in charge of choosing which candidates could appear on the ballot. The NPC’s plan galvanized huge street protests in Hong Kong last year — an awakening of political consciousness that surprised even residents of the former British colony. After Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the territory was promised 50 years of considerable autonomy from Beijing, under a principle that was dubbed “one country, two systems.”

Hong Kong’s pan-democrat lawmakers opposed Beijing’s new electoral plan as a betrayal of this principle, arguing that a filtering by a pro-Beijing committee hardly constituted “universal suffrage.” Other lawmakers maintained that the proposal was far more democratic than the current system that led to the choosing of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying — and Hong Kong should jump at the opportunity for more self-determination. The Global Times, a Beijing-based daily with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, decried Thursday’s veto from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, in an editorial headlined “Sad Moment for Hong Kong[’s] Democratic Process.”

But Xinhua’s brief announcement — which was likely readied even before the vote took place in Hong Kong, according to analysts of China’s state-run media — raised the possibility that the NPC’s judgment trumps whatever legislative exercises might have taken place in a city of 7 million in southern China. “[The central government] cannot ignore the decision of the Legislative Council,” says Lam Cheuk-ting, chief executive of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, responding to the Xinhua notice. “Any political reform has to be approved by the Legislative Council, and they should have listened to the voice of the Hong Kong people.”

Emily Lau, a veteran Hong Kong opposition lawmaker, cautions that the Xinhua cable may not necessarily mean that Beijing will force Hong Kong to adhere to a new method of choosing its future leader, rather that no more democratic plan will materialize in the future. “They’re saying … ‘This is the thing on offer, if you want, you can come and take it. If you don’t want, wait a few years, it will be the same thing on offer,’” says Lau. “They should trust the Hong Kong people to choose someone who can work with Beijing. And such a person exists. If Beijing would only give Hong Kong people a chance. But they are too scared.”

With reporting by Alissa Greenberg and Joanna Plucinska / Hong Kong

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