China to Rule on Hong Kong’s Democratic Hopes

Decision Could Spark Mass Protests Against Beijing
Tens of thousands of people gather at Hong Kong's Victoria park to join a protest march to oppose a planned civil disobedience campaign by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong

Tens of thousands of people gather at Hong Kong's Victoria park to join a protest march to oppose a planned civil disobedience campaign by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong / AP

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China’s top legislature will weigh in this week on an electoral dispute in Hong Kong that could fuel mass demonstrations if the demands of protesters are not met, according to reports.

Several members of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy party will attend a meeting this week of China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, though only one will be allowed to vote. The Standing Committee is expected to decide by Sunday how Hong Kong should select its next chief executive in 2017.

Democracy advocates in Hong Kong have pushed for universal suffrage that would eliminate interference from Beijing in the nomination and election process. However, pro-Beijing officials in Hong Kong’s government have suggested that candidates should still have to receive approval from a nominating committee that is closely linked with China’s government.

About 500,000 Hong Kong residents protested against Beijing’s rule last month during the annual commemoration of the former British colony’s incorporation back into China in 1997. The demonstration, one of the largest in Hong Kong’s history, followed the release of a Chinese government white paper in June. The document riled the pro-democracy Civic Party by stating that Hong Kong does not have “full autonomy” and that regional judges should be “patriotic” in their duties.

Almost 800,000 Hong Kong voters participated in an unofficial democracy referendum in June organized by the protest group Occupy Central. About 42 percent said they favor electoral methods that grant citizens the right to directly nominate candidates without Beijing’s involvement.

Critics say the world’s leading democracies, including the United States, have so far failed to offer full-throated support for Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations.

“The U.S. and the UK know the difference between genuine and phony democracy. In fact, so does Beijing,” said Ellen Bork, director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), in an email.

“The question is whether the real democracies are willing to stand up for Hong Kong’s people who have repeatedly and overwhelmingly showed they want to choose their own leaders, not be governed by Beijing’s proxies.”

A State Department spokesperson said U.S. officials support a democratic Hong Kong but did not comment specifically on how its leaders should be elected.

“The United States supports democracy in Hong Kong in accordance with the Basic Law, the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ and the aspirations of the Hong Kong people,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We believe that an open society, with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law, is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.”

A 1,200-member committee of mostly pro-Beijing elites currently selects Hong Kong’s chief executive. China’s government has said Hong Kong residents will be permitted to vote for their top leader in 2017, but democracy activists fear that Beijing will still largely control the nomination of candidates.

Occupy Central says it will stage a mass demonstration in Hong Kong’s business district if Beijing ignores the will of protesters. The pro-democracy movement has attracted thousands of supporters in Hong Kong, where nearly 40 percent of residents are now younger than 35 and have less direct ties to China.

The commander of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Hong Kong was suddenly removed last month after hundreds of thousands protested for democratic reforms, a decision China’s government did not explain. The PLA replaced him with a Russian-trained general who formerly served in Hong Kong.

Police on Sunday arrested five residents of Macau, China’s other special administrative region, after activist groups organized an unofficial democracy referendum modeled after the one Hong Kong held in June.