Hong Kong Democrats Close Ranks on China-Backed Vote Plan

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Legislative Council Vote
Pro-democracy legislators inside the chamber of Legislative Council in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Photographer: Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg

Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmakers vowed to vote down a China-backed plan for the city’s first direct leadership election as the proposal neared a pivotal ballot in the legislature.

After almost nine hours of a debate that began Wednesday, none of the Legislative Council’s 27 pan-democratic lawmakers expressed support for the government’s proposal for the citywide election in 2017. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying needs at least four votes from opposition lawmakers, who criticize provisions requiring candidate-screening by a panel of elites -- many loyal to the Chinese government in Beijing.

“It’s very clear that we will retain the blocking votes that we need,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, leader of the city’s Labor Party. “While it’s sad that we won’t be able to get democracy this time around, I think the Hong Kong people should be proud that we have the freedom for the local government to say no to the central authorities.”

The debate follows months of political tumult in the Asian financial center after the National People’s Congress outlined plans for the election and thousands of student-led protesters seized city streets last September. While the occupation plunged Hong Kong into the worst political crisis since its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, demonstrators failed to convince the Communist Party to allow fully free elections.

Democratic lawmakers have so far remained united against the measure and members on both sides have predicted its defeat. All 23 pan-democrats that had the opportunity to speak by 11:55 a.m. Thursday, indicated their continued opposition. With only four more pro-democratic lawmakers left to speak and many supporters of the bill choosing not to intervene, chances were increasing that the vote could come as soon as Thursday.

‘Historical Significance’

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, Leung’s No. 2, opened debate by urging lawmakers to pass the bill. “No matter what the results of the vote are, today’s legislative council meeting will have a far-reaching historical significance in the political development of Hong Kong,” Lam said. “What you choose today will determine whether five million people will have right to vote.”

The city remains divided, with 44.2 percent supporting the measure as of June 13, and 40.9 percent opposing it, according to a daily tracking poll conducted by three local universities.

Investors have been unperturbed by the civic turmoil. Since Aug. 31, when China outlined the initial voting guidelines, Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index has climbed 8 percent, outstripping the MSCI Asia Pacific Index which has fallen 1 percent in the period.

Protesters Gather

Advocates from both sides gathered outside the Legislative Council on Wednesday, waving banners and shouting slogans. Pro-government protesters held signs saying, “Support political reform,” and “Protect universal suffrage.”

Crowds grew into the hundreds as city residents finished work and the day’s debate drew to a close. Opponents of the proposal shouted slogans calling for greater democracy and criticizing the Communist Party.

“Of course I want to whole-heartedly believe that the pan-dems won’t go back on their vows, but who knows what will happen,” said Cherry Ko, 24, who works in marketing and supported last year’s protests. “That’s why all those who promised they’d be back need to be here -- to make sure they stay the course.”

Those who support the proposal argue it would give the city the most democracy possible under a “One Country, Two Systems” framework that ensures China has final sway over who holds the city’s top post.

Gridlock

The plan’s defeat risks increasing tensions with Beijing and deepening gridlock in the local legislature that has stalled bills and delayed this year’s budget by six weeks. Passing it could trigger further unrest with some leaders of last year’s protests pledging a return to the streets.

In Beijing, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang indicated the framework handed down last August could be modified after approval. “In the long run, it can be perfected in practice according to Hong Kong’s actual situation, including social development and the formation of social consensus,” Lu said at a regular news briefing.

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