The small group of pro-democracy lawmakers in the Hong Kong legislature don’t have enough votes to get much done. But when 27 of them band together, they have the numbers to block significant pieces of legislation that require two-thirds support in the 70-member chamber.
Now they hope to use that power to knock down a Chinese proposal that would allow Beijing to choose whom Hong Kong can vote to its top political office.
“We are very angry and very, very unhappy,” said Emily Lau, who leads Hong Kong’s Democratic Party. “There’s no chance that we will allow this to pass.”
But China wields such influence in Hong Kong that it’s unclear whether legislators will ultimately prove capable of vetoing a new plan that places heavy constraints on who can be elected Hong Kong’s powerful chief executive.
A proposal released Sunday mandates candidates “love” China and be nominated by more than half of a secretive 1,200-person committee over which Beijing holds substantial sway. Two or three successful nominees can then appear on a ballot for a general election, a system China has said fulfills its promise to give Hong Kong “universal suffrage.”
But critics have called it sullied democracy, and are threatening “wave after wave” of protests that are beginning to come to life. On Monday, protesters holding “We want democracy” signs interrupted a press conference with Chinese officials in Hong Kong. Youth leaders pledged broad student strikes at high schools and universities in mid-September. Police used pepper spray on a small group of protesters, the first scuffle in what could be a coming series of tense encounters with police – and, perhaps, soldiers.
Chinese officials have already threatened to use provisions in Hong Kong’s Basic Law that allow the People’s Liberation Army to be called in. They have also warned that the election reform is in large measure a take-it-or-leave-it deal, saying Beijing is not eager to revisit the issue in five years’ time.
“It would be impossible for the development opportunities that were lost to come again,” said Li Fei, chairman of the Basic Law Committee that oversees Hong Kong.
If the Hong Kong legislature rejects the voting proposal, the 2017 election will not happen. Instead, the chief executive will be chosen using the current method, where the 1,200-person committee makes the decision.
That would seem to be a step backward. But pro-democracy lawmakers said Beijing has gone back on its word to allow proper elections, and they cannot support it.
Leung Kwok-hung, the legislator known as Long Hair, compared it to ordering steak at a restaurant and being served a plate of ground beef. “You will not accept it,” he said.
“It is clear that if any significant reform or progress will happen, a lot of people will need to [be willing to risk arrest] for the cause of democracy.” Long Hair’s famous locks were trimmed in June when he was briefly jailed for public disorderly conduct related to earlier efforts to push for universal suffrage.
Ms. Lau, meanwhile, called for more support from the international community. She specifically derided Canada for its silence. Several hundred thousand Hong Kong residents hold Canadian passports, but Ottawa has made no formal statement on the Beijing proposal.
“It seems they are all only interested in doing business with Beijing, and will turn a blind eye to such a lousy decision,” Ms. Lau said.
Still, it’s not clear even in Hong Kong that sufficient political will exists to turn down the Chinese proposal.
Coming weeks and months are likely to bring out the kind of bare-knuckled politics usually reserved for election fights, said Joseph Yu-shek Cheng, a professor who acts as convenor for the Alliance for True Democracy, a coalition of pro-democracy legislators. Only four of those lawmakers must switch sides for the proposal to pass, and Mr. Cheng acknowledged “there is a little bit of concern about that.”
He expects Beijing to offer defectors plum ministerial appointments, or perhaps even a spot on the Chinese National People’s Congress that made the controversial election proposal. China may also threaten the release of damaging information against those who won’t give their support.
The stakes for China are high.
“If the proposal endorsed by Beijing gets vetoed in the legislature, it certainly reflects badly on the Chinese authorities – that they have offered an undemocratic proposal rejected by the public,” Mr. Cheng said.
Signs of hard-nosed Chinese strategy have already emerged. Investigators last week searched the home of Jimmy Lai, the billionaire whose media properties have frequently been critical of Beijing. Mr. Lai has said hackers also stole documents that were then leaked to local media, and showed some $1.4-million in political donations last year. At least one legislator who received those donations has been probed by anti-corruption authorities.
Such investigations could be “very damaging to the pan-democrats’ cause,” and could create splits, said Xueliang Ding, a Hong Kong University of Science and Technology professor of Chinese history and contemporary Chinese politics.
It’s not at all clear, he said, that the coalition of 27 lawmakers united against the election proposal will last long enough to defeat Beijing’s interest in having it passed.
“Anything could happen.”