Hong Kong Votes in Test of China’s Influence Over Finance Hub

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  • Pro-democracy camp fights to keep ability to block legislation
  • Several candidates campaign for independence from China

Officials count the votes for the Legislative Council election in Hong Kong on Sept. 5.

Photographer: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Hong Kong began voting Sunday in a legislative election that will test the appeal of a new wave of anti-China activists and set the stage for future political fights over Beijing’s control over the city.

The Legislative Council election is the first since police clashes with student protesters two years ago thrust the former British colony’s struggle for greater democracy into the global spotlight. The scuffles exposed rifts in Hong Kong’s political camps, with some pro-democracy advocates demanding a sharper break with China and other more establishment politicians calling for the ouster of the city’s Beijing-backed leader.

The result, expected on Monday, will impact Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s ability to implement his agenda in the Asian financial hub and get re-elected in March. Also at stake is the opposition’s capacity to block legislation with more than a third of the chamber’s 70 seats, a key barrier to controversial bills like the proposed election overhaul that sparked the mass “Occupy” rallies in 2014.

That power held by the opposition “is the only thing preventing the government from reintroducing the political reform package against the will of Hong Kong people,” said Chung Kim-wah, a political scientist at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “It is important for the opposition to hold that majority if LegCo is to remain a balance to the executive power," he said, referring to the legislature.

Hong Kong Tries to Cut Path From Liberty to Democracy: QuickTake

Since the last legislative election in 2012, Hong Kong has seen a series of political clashes over whether China is preserving the “high degree of autonomy" it promised before regaining sovereignty almost two decades ago. The disappearance last year of five local men who sold books critical of the ruling Communist Party drew international protests after they were revealed to be in the custody of mainland Chinese authorities.

Underlying the election campaign are worries about rising competition from mainland Chinese workers, sky-high housing costs and a slowing economy. Growth in 2016 is forecast to slow to a seven-year low of 1.2 percent, according to a Bloomberg survey.

A lack of reliable polling and a system in which lists of candidates vie for multiple seats in each district makes predicting the outcome difficult. Thirty-five seats represent geographical districts, while 30 represent various professions, industries and special-interest groups such as medicine, finance and agriculture. Five more “super seats” are selected by citywide vote.

An elderly couple walk past campaign banners during the Legislative Council election in Hong Kong on September 4, 2016.Young Hong Kong independence activists calling for a complete break from China stood in major elections for the first time on September 4, the biggest vote since 2014 pro-democracy rallies. / AFP / Anthony WALLACE (Photo credit should read ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images)
A couple walk past campaign banners during the Legislative Council election in Hong Kong on Sept. 4.
Photographer: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Red Line

Legislators under the “pan-democratic” umbrella currently hold 27 seats, compared with 43 in the pro-establishment group. That gives the opposition the power to slow legislation with filibusters and block changes to the city’s charter, which require support from two-thirds of the chamber.

The professional seats are dominated by Beijing loyalists, damping the fractious pro-democracy camp’s hope of winning a majority for the first time since the U.K. handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Maintaining unity has become even more challenging as more-radical parties push for self-determination or even independence from China.

The government has drawn a red line on advocacy of independence, barring six candidates from running and requiring hopefuls to sign a form acknowledging that the city is an inalienable part of China. Still, some so-called "localists" have made the cut. Success in Sunday’s vote could give them a greater platform to challenge China.

Anti-Leung Campaign

Holding those views risked “grave consequences,” said Zou Pingxue, director of Hong Kong and Macau Basic Law Research Centre, Shenzhen University. “The Hong Kong government took effective measures to deal with it, and I think this is the right thing to do.”

Leung has become the target of a cross-party campaign to urge Beijing to not support him for another five-year term as Hong Kong’s leader. Leung, who refused to speak with students during the 79-day Occupy protest, is blamed for failing to calm political divides in the city. He hasn’t said if he wants to stay on.

Under current rules, the chief executive is selected by a 1,200-member committee of political insiders dominated by China loyalists, and subject to approval by the central government in Beijing.