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Hong Kong Seeks to Sap Democracy Protests, Anson Chan Says

Hong Kong's Former Chief Secretary Anson Chan
Anson Chan, Hong Kong's former chief secretary, smiles during an interview in New York on March 31, 2014. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Hong Kong’s government may delay electoral reforms for the 2017 election to reduce the momentum of planned pro-democracy protests, the city’s former top civil servant said.

Anson Chan, the former chief secretary, said she didn’t expect the government to introduce legislation until early next year, leaving lawmakers and residents a “take it or leave it” choice on the method to pick the city’s next chief executive.

Hong Kong is gripped in a debate over how to elect its next leader, with opposition lawmakers pushing for full-fledged democracy in line with international standards while China wants candidates to be vetted by a committee. Occupy Central, a civic group started by an academic, has threatened protests in the business district should reforms not meet its demands.

“We want to do our best to ensure what eventually comes out of the government is a credible set of proposals that the people of Hong Kong can support,” Chan said in an interview in New York yesterday.

The threat of mass protests have been criticized by executives including Asia’s richest man Li Ka-shing and New World Development Co. Chairman Henry Cheng, who have said the movement will hurt Hong Kong’s competitiveness.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said in an interview in June that he wants to deliver on the reforms, though increased democracy may lead to China’s refusal to appoint a leader elected by the city’s people.

Public Consultation

A five-month public consultation, led by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, will end on May 3, with the government then expected to submit the proposals to Beijing for approval.

The Chinese government will decide if there’s a need to amend the proposal, and then Hong Kong will start a second public consultation in the second half of the year, it said today in an e-mailed response to questions. The final proposal will then be put to lawmakers, it said.

“Some of the more extreme members are getting a bit agitated over the lack of action,” Chan said, referring to Occupy Central. Organizer Benny Tai and his colleagues “need to consider between now and when the government actually rolls out its own proposal what can be done to sustain interest.”

The government has responded to mass protests in the past. In 2003, it withdrew planned anti-subversion legislation after more than 500,000 people marched to oppose the bill.

While the government respects “the freedom of expression of every individual,” residents should abide by the law, it said today. Hong Kong is “sincere and devoted to achieving universal suffrage” based on the Basic Law and decisions made by the National People’s Congress, it said.

Two Systems

China wants “absolute control” over Hong Kong, and wants to avoid a situation where the electorate chooses a leader that it finds unacceptable, Martin Lee, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, said in the interview yesterday.

Hong Kong needs a leader with a true democratic mandate, who has the legitimacy to make changes while ensuring that the “one country, two systems” arrangement functions, Lee said.

China’s “One Country, Two Systems” policy granted Hong Kong its own legal system for 50 years under the Basic Law implemented after the U.K. returned the territory to China in 1997. The city allows residents civil liberties including a free press and freedom of assembly not permitted in the mainland.

Candidates for the chief executive should have the backing of “more than half” of the committee, Lau Siu-kai, vice president of the National Association of Study on Hong Kong and Macau, said last week, the South China Morning Post reported.

Lee and Chan are scheduled to visit Washington during this trip and have arranged meetings with senior leaders of both parties in Congress.

“The reception unfortunately is not as good as it was before,” Lee said. “Every time I make a visit to this country, people tell me, ‘Mr. Lee, you unfortunately picked the wrong time -- there’s so much on China’s plate -- Iraq, North Korea and so on and now Crimea, Ukraine.’ But that is wrong. I tell them that there’s always a Hong Kong plate. No matter how full the China plate is, the Hong Kong plate is empty.”

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