HONG KONG — Democracy — even a half-cooked version with Chinese characteristics — will not be coming soon to Hong Kong. On June 18, the city’s legislature, the Legislative Council, vetoed a constitutional amendment that would have let Hong Kong voters cast ballots for their chief executive — albeit for a maximum of 3 candidates, restricted and vetted by Beijing — in 2017.
That plan was what had sparked massive street protests in fall 2014 — protests that continue to tear at the city’s civic fabric.
The Legislative Council vote, 8-28, ended strangely, with a block of the chamber’s pro-Beijing lawmakers walking out without voting. (It is unclear why they did this: The most popular theory suggested that the pro-Beijing lawmakers thought they had successfully postponed the vote.) Regardless of how it happened, for the democrats the veto was a victory, albeit a small one. “It’s time to celebrate,’’ lawmaker Fernando Cheung told me after the vote. Cheung, who took part in the fall protests, wore a medallion shaped like a yellow umbrella in honor of the Umbrella Movement, the nickname for the protests that alludes to the raingear used to fend off pepper spraying police. He had just bought a can of beer in a nearby convenience store. “At least we stopped the whole thing in its path. It’s important to Hong Kong, as a special administrative region [of China] to say it to the central government. It’s loud and clear.”
Democracy activists had urged lawmakers to reject the elections plan, written under the strict dictates of Beijing. Rejecting the plan, they said, would send a necessary message that nearly 18 years after the British returned the city to China’s fold, Hong Kong would vigorously defend its freedoms under the one-country, two-systems governance agreement. And the 28 pro-democracy lawmakers managed to hold onto their block, with each one rejecting the plan. “We are not gullible,” Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo told her colleagues in the chamber. “If you want to be true to the words democracy and universal suffrage … we have no option but to vote against it.”
While rejecting the new plan, the vote leaves the city with its despised balloting system, set up during colonial days, that lets 1,200 business, trade, and political group members choose the chief executive. The system ensures that only connected people, most of whom are loyal to Beijing, get to vote — shutting out most of the electorate of five million.
The plan’s backers — mostly pro-Beijing party members — urged lawmakers to pass the proposal and work to improve it. A Chinese foreign ministry official had told reporters before the vote that no system “would remain unchanged forever.” And pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip told her colleagues that “it’s even possible that once universal suffrage is implemented in Hong Kong, it could serve as a blueprint for Beijing to test it in other parts of China in the future.” It’s an argument, however, that few believe.
For his part, the city’s chief executive, C.Y. Leung, has told reporters that the city is ready to move on to other issues.
But his populace is not ready to move on. While it’s unlikely that the city will again erupt in massive street protests like the sit-in that paralyzed parts of Hong Kong for almost 3 months last fall — at the protest’s height, tens of thousands of people jammed major corridors — the issue of unhindered elections will not quietly fade away.
The Umbrella Movement has spawned a few new efforts, although they have struggled to gain traction. A march on June 14, billed as the first event to kick off the fight against the elections plan, drew an anemic crowd of 3,000 people. Organizers conceded it was a blow. “A lot of people have lost faith in protesting, in this kind of protesting,” said Ed Lau, one of the organizers and founder of the pro-democracy group Ignite Your Belief, as he scanned the many media and police officers who outnumbered participants by the event’s end. “After the Umbrella Revolution, they’re probably thinking ‘what’s the fucking point?’”
Several people in their 20s and 30s have said they’re intent on running in district elections in November, and some hope to run for the Legislative Council as pan-democracy politicians in 2016. Yet none of these hopefuls has announced formal candidacies, and some prospective candidates told me that they’re nervous that they’ll fail to raise enough money to seriously challenge pro-Beijing candidates, who typically have hefty coffers.
The democracy movement fractured during the winter, with some protesters blaming the student leaders for being too passive and anemic. Radical activists, some who would like Hong Kong to become a city-state akin to Singapore, attracted supporters during the winter when they protested the stream of mainland visitors who spirited baby formula and other goods across the border for illegal sales. Those protesters, who clashed with police and have relished the chance to make the protests more physical, may have lost some of their appeal after police arrested 10 people in mid-June, accusing some of manufacturing explosives.
The most committed democracy fighters are searching for new tactics and new ways to attract broad support. Joshua Wong, one of the student leaders of last fall’s protest, told a small crowd outside the Legislative Council building on June 16 that the city must stage a referendum to amend the Basic Law, Hong’s Kong’s constitution. It’s vital, he said, that the city assure its freedoms in writing beyond 2047, when the city’s special 50-year governance agreement with Beijing tolls.
Legal scholars dismissed the likelihood, and wisdom, of the idea. Amending the constitution would require mounting a huge hurdle — approval from two-thirds of the lawmakers and the same ratio of deputies representing Hong Kong at Beijing’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, said Simon Young, law professor at the University of Hong Kong. The deputies, he said, are pro-Beijing.
Opening the constitution to change might have unintended consequences. Hong Kongers have far greater rights — common law, independent courts, international standards of civil and political rights, and yes, the right to vote — than residents on the mainland. “Here in Hong Kong, there is a document that guarantees basic rights that one expects in an open society,” said Michael Davis, another law professor at the University of Hong Kong. “By opening the idea of amending the Basic Law, they would put at risk [the] rights they seek to protect, and guarantees would be further undermined.” It would be far wiser, he said, for activists to press Beijing to obey its governance agreement with Hong Kong and to challenge new interpretations, like the one issued in August 2014 by the National People’s Congress that offered a new, restrictive interpretation of some liberties. So how can protesters compel Beijing? Through civil disobedience, marches, boycotts, Davis said — strategies used around the world.
Whatever the method, the chief executive’s wish — that they city just forget changing its elections system and move on — strikes many as symbolic of his ostrich-like leadership. Despite a clear path forward, it’s unlikely that the citizenry will ignore the elections issue, or that Leung can drown out the shouts of his agitated populace.
Regardless of whether or not the bill gets rejected, “There will be chaos,” Sam Yip Kam-lung, a leader of a new democracy group called Citizens Against Pseudo Universal Suffrage, said as he helped pack up the stage equipment at the protest outside of the Legislative Council building on June 16. “Hong Kong is quite seriously divided.”
Photo credit: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images