A snub to the party

A snub to the party

Legislators veto China’s plans for political change

 

POLITICAL bodies in China rarely defy the will of the Communist Party. On June 18th, however, the legislature in Hong Kong (known as Legco) vetoed the party’s plans for what had been touted as momentous political reform in the former colony. Twenty-eight of the body’s 70 members voted against the proposal, calling it a sham. But that leaves Hong Kong no closer to achieving democracy. And as noisy demonstrations by rival groups outside the debating chamber suggested, public opinion is deeply divided.

The outcome of the vote was no surprise: pro-democracy legislators had long denounced the proposal, which called for the introduction of “universal suffrage” in the next elections for the territory’s chief executive, in 2017. Their objection was that the only candidates allowed to stand would be a maximum of three people, all of them nominated and chosen by a 1,200-member committee stacked with supporters of the party drawn from Hong Kong’s business and political elite. 

The only surprise was a bizarre walkout staged by pro-establishment lawmakers just before the vote. This meant that the plan was defeated far more soundly than expected, with only eight voting in favour of it. Voting rules required support from at least two-thirds of members for the package to pass. Though expected, the outcome is an embarrassment for the leadership in Beijing. It had badly wanted to be seen to be fulfilling the commitment it gave in its mini-constitution for post-colonial Hong Kong, known as the Basic Law, which says that the territory may eventually enjoy universal suffrage. China never offered Western-style democracy in Hong Kong, but thought it could allow one-person-one-vote while maintaining sufficient control over the process to ensure that a critic of the party would never be elected.

The leadership in Beijing had made it clear there was no other offer. That means the next elections will be held according to the existing rules: a similar kind of committee will choose the chief executive, but without a public vote. This leaves pro-democracy politicians in a quandary. Polls had suggested that public opinion is roughly evenly split between those who wanted legislators to vote down the plan, and those who believed that it would be better to accept it, even if it is flawed. If the outcome of the vote is greater tension between radical activists in Hong Kong and leaders in Beijing who are unwilling to make any concessions on voting procedures, then democrats risk losing support among moderates who fear turmoil. The possibility of growing street unrest became evident late last year when pro-democracy demonstrators staged unprecedented sit-ins on major roads for 79 days. 

Democrats hope that elections to Legco next year will vindicate their stance. But Michael DeGolyer of Baptist University says they may be disappointed. It is possible, he says, that they will lose seats because of voters’ worries about the political impasse. That may deprive the democrats of their veto power, and make it easier to introduce changes in the voting system according to the party’s wishes. “They built this trap for themselves and then walked into it,” Mr DeGolyer says. Democratic politicians are unrepentant. “Perhaps we are naive, but at least we have a conscience,” says Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran legislator (pictured above, in an orange jacket, with fellow legislators—their banner calls for genuine elections).

Democrats like Mr Lee see their struggle as part of a broader campaign for democracy in the country as a whole. Younger activists, however, believe the two issues should be separated, and that it is time to adopt a more militant stance in the pursuit of democracy in Hong Kong—even if that means sometimes breaking the law, albeit peacefully. Political frustration is causing some to reconsider their feelings for the mainland and its culture. This was evident earlier this month when Hong Kong’s football team played fellow minnows, the Maldives and Bhutan, in qualifying matches at home for the World Cup. As China’s national anthem, “March of the Volunteers”, struck up at both games, some Hong Kongers in the crowd began to boo. At the Maldives game, many also raised their middle fingers.

China is in no mood for a serious reassessment of its stance on democratic reform. Since taking power in 2012 President Xi Jinping has stepped up efforts to stifle dissent on the mainland. He does not want to make concessions in Hong Kong that might encourage pro-democracy activists on the other side of the border. Dozens of mainlanders who expressed sympathy with last year’s Occupy Central protests were detained or given warnings by mainland police.

In 2017, when Hong Kong is next due to choose its leader, Mr Xi will be engrossed in preparations for sweeping changes in the central leadership later that year. The last thing he wants adding to his headaches is any uncertainty about the outcome in Hong Kong. The current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, may not be popular at home. But for now he has the support of Mr Xi, whose vote is the only one in China that really counts.