Democracy in action in Hong Kong?

Ever since Britain gave Hong Kong back to China in 1997, pro-democracy activists have hoped that Beijing’s special rules for the island would lead to broader constitutional reforms. Hong Kong is largely autonomous when it comes to legal and administrative matters, but its legislature is still partly made up of special-interest groups whose loyalties lie ...

Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images
Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images
Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since Britain gave Hong Kong back to China in 1997, pro-democracy activists have hoped that Beijing's special rules for the island would lead to broader constitutional reforms. Hong Kong is largely autonomous when it comes to legal and administrative matters, but its legislature is still partly made up of special-interest groups whose loyalties lie with the mainland.

Today, though, the balance shifts in favor of the activists. Hong Kong just approved a compromise with Beijing that adds 10 directly elected seats to the legislature. For the first time, the number of directly elected representatives in Hong Kong will outnumber those appointed by interest groups. The changes are slated to take effect with the next elections, in 2012. By any measure, the agreement would appear to be a major victory.

But the moderate party that sealed the deal is coming under fire from hard-liners who wanted full, universal suffrage in 2012:

Ever since Britain gave Hong Kong back to China in 1997, pro-democracy activists have hoped that Beijing’s special rules for the island would lead to broader constitutional reforms. Hong Kong is largely autonomous when it comes to legal and administrative matters, but its legislature is still partly made up of special-interest groups whose loyalties lie with the mainland.

Today, though, the balance shifts in favor of the activists. Hong Kong just approved a compromise with Beijing that adds 10 directly elected seats to the legislature. For the first time, the number of directly elected representatives in Hong Kong will outnumber those appointed by interest groups. The changes are slated to take effect with the next elections, in 2012. By any measure, the agreement would appear to be a major victory.

But the moderate party that sealed the deal is coming under fire from hard-liners who wanted full, universal suffrage in 2012:

"Today is the darkest day for the democratic development of Hong Kong," Albert Chan of the League of Social Democrats shouted in the chamber.

Strong words. But Chan’s urgent melodrama may be justified; under Hong Kong’s constitution, which is controlled by Beijing, the "capitalist system and way of life" that the island was allowed to keep in 1997 is only guaranteed for another 37 years. While nobody’s said anything about what happens afterward, Beijing will technically be free to reassert control over Hong Kong by 2047. Given the rest of China’s increasingly capitalist path, the possibility of that actually happening seems remote, now. Still, it’s a reminder that for Chan and his colleagues, time may be running out.

Brian Fung is an editorial researcher at FP.

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