Hong Kong’s government officially unveiled its plan for electoral reform yesterday. As expected, the proposal — which will be put to a vote this summer — is in essence a rehash of the controversial blueprint approved by Beijing’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee last August. With the last slim hope for compromise gone, the debate over Hong Kong’s elections is heating up once again.
The major concession to last year’s massive “Occupy Central protests,” which denounced the NPCSC plan, is that the new proposal allows candidates to enter the nominating process after being approved by only 120 members of the 1,200-strong nominating committee. However, the final three candidates (which will be the public’s only options for the popular vote) will still need to be approved by at least half of the committee. Critics say that the nominating committee includes too many pro-Beijing elements for any pan-democrat candidate to ever reach that threshold of support, effectively barring them from running for Hong Kong’s highest office.
China’s Foreign Ministry signaled its strong support for the election plan, with spokesman Hong Lei calling it “lawful, feasible, sensible and practical.” Hong also denounced foreign criticisms, saying that the proposal was a “comprehensive reflection of opinions and suggestions given by the Hong Kong public.”
Hong Kong’s government, meanwhile, is not trying to pretend that the proposal is perfect. Instead, the government is selling its plan as the only practical way forward — a work-in-progress. “We should weigh very carefully whether the passage of these proposals or a standstill in constitutional development will be a more favorable outcome for the overall and long-term interests of Hong Kong,” Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief secretary, told legislators on Thursday. Hong Kong is attempting to convince the public that incremental steps toward democracy are still a net-gain for the city – and suggesting that the electoral system might be reformed again before the elections in 2022.
South China Morning Post’s editorial board took up this line of argument in an editorial on Thursday. “One person, one vote to choose the city’s leader will be a milestone in Hong Kong’s democracy… It is in the city’s interest for Legco [Hong Kong’s Legislative Council] to approve the reforms,” SCMP wrote. The paper also noted that pan-democrats are unlikely to get anything better, as “the reality is that Beijing has made clear that the framework will not be retracted.”
However, the proposal’s opponents don’t buy the argument that an imperfect electoral reform plan is better than nothing. Despite SCMP’s editorial, a poll on its website showed 90 percent of respondents saying they do not support the election plan. Pan-democrats have threatened to veto any proposal that hews closely to Beijing’s recommendations. They signaled their displeasure by walking out of the legislative chamber en masse during the presentation of the reform package.
The vote is scheduled to be held in June. If the 27 pan-democrats in LegCo veto the proposal as promised, Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017 will be chosen solely by the nominating committee, as has been the case in the past. However, the government only needs to sway four pan-democrat lawmakers to get the bill through the legislature.
With the timeline set and the battle lines drawn, some are predicting more “Occupy Central” style protests in Hong Kong in the lead-up to the June vote. But this time, both sides have promised to take to the streets, hoping to sway public opinion. The government has promised to stump heavily for the proposal, holding speeches around the city and handing out leaflets. Meanwhile, pan-democrats will launch their own publicity campaign and the student group Scholarism (a key part of last year’s protests) has vowed to protest at Hong Kong officials’ talks.
Groups of protestors representing both sides already clashed outside the LegCo building while the reform plan was being announced. Al Jazeera reported that supporters (waving Chinese flags) and opponents (holding yellow umbrellas) had to be separated after verbal confrontations.