09/01/2014, 00.00
HONG KONG - CHINA

For Occupy Central, a new era of civil disobedience begins in favour of democracy in Hong Kong

The local pro-democracy movement is dismayed by Beijing's intransigence on the issue of universal suffrage for the former British colony. The Chinese proposal turns the existing Election Committee, whose members and size remain the same, into a nominating committee to pick "two or three" candidates for the election to the post of chief executive. Under the new rules, "The chief executive must be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong" whilst Hong Kong will continue to enjoy a "high degree" but not "full autonomy". By contrast, critics insist that Hong Kongers are "more than ready to have democracy. We are not living in North Korea."

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - China's position regarding universal suffrage and democracy in Hong Kong ended any hope of dialogue. For Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, one of the three leading organisers of Occupy Central, the city has officially entered an "era of civil disobedience"," which will begin with a sit-in in its central financial district. This comes after a senior Chinese official announced Beijing's decision concerning Hong Kong's next election.

Despite formal political agreements, an existing constitution, a referendum that saw 800,000 cast their ballots, and hundreds of peaceful protests, mainland China decided to deny the former British colony the right to choose its chief office holder in a democratic fashion.

According to the government in Beijing, the current election committee would be replaced by another entity (with the same members) who will nominate "two or three" candidates for the role of chief executive. Pro-democracy activists reacted by announcing new protests.

Hong Kong, a former British crown colony, returned to mainland China in 1997 following a 1984 agreement between Beijing and London.

On that occasion, China agreed to rule Hong Kong under the principle of "one country, two systems", where the city would enjoy "a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs" for 50 years.

As a result, Hong Kong has its own legal system, and rights - including freedom of assembly and free speech - are protected.

Until now the head of the government of the former colony was elected by a 1,200 member election committee drawn from Hong Kong's pro-Beijing business and political elites, picked from four subsectors representing various business, professional, political and civil society interests.

Such a modus operandi was chosen in order to give people time to get used to new freedoms with a fully democratic vote slated only for 2017. Under British rule, there was no popular representation.

Hong Kong's Basic Law, which is a legacy of British rule, was approved by mainland China. It clearly states that its " ultimate aim" is to elect the chief executive "by universal suffrage".

The Chinese government promised free elections by 2017on more than one occasion. However, last month, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's main law-making body, decided that Hong Kong voters would be allowed to choose only from a list of two or three candidates selected by a committee appointed to nominate the right people.

The committee has not yet been set up but its members will certainly have to agree with the existing system, which is controlled from Beijing.

Anyone who wants to run for the office of chief executive must be approved by more than of the committee's members. For pro-democracy activists, China will use the committee to screen out unwelcome candidates.

In its announcement, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress said in fact, "The chief executive must be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong. This is a basic requirement of the policy of 'one country, two systems'. It is . . . stipulated in the Basic Law, and called for by the actual need to maintain long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong [and] uphold the sovereignty, security and development interests of the country."

In practice, this means that anyone who has a critical stance towards Beijing can run for this office.

"The framework is definitely unacceptable," said Lau Kim-ling, executive secretary of the Student Christian Movement of Hong Kong. "We should never let this reform proposal get passed as, with 'one man, one vote', it would offer fake credibility to the next chief executive. Hong Kong is more than ready to have democracy. We are not living in North Korea."

'Occupy Central', a pro-democracy movement that has led popular protests against the Chinese position, is led by three long-time activists: Baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming, university professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Dr Chan Kin-man.

The group held an unofficial referendum on political reform between 20 and 29 June. Voters had to choose between three proposals regarding the elections 2017, allowing voters to pick the candidate of their choice.

On 20 June, Hong Kong's Bishop Emeritus Card Joseph Zen ended an 84-km march across Hong Kong meant to encourage citizens to participate in the referendum. Card John Tong, the current bishop, also expressed his support for the right of the people to give their views on democracy.

A total of 792,808 voters cast their ballots. Activists claimed the high turnout - about one in five registered voters - showed strong backing from the public for democracy more than for Occupy Central. Shortly after the vote, nearly half a million people took part in the annual March for democracy on 1 July.

In its June 2014 white paper, China said some had a "confused and lopsided" understanding of the "one country, two systems" model. It stressed that whilst Hong Kong had a "high degree of autonomy", it was "not full autonomy". China still has "comprehensive jurisdiction".

Beijing, which has condemned pro-democracy protests and called the unofficial referendum a "farce", has defended its decision on election candidacy.

Li Fei, the deputy secretary general of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, said that openly nominating candidates would create a "chaotic society" and that any chief executive must "love the country".

The pro-democracy movement waited until the last moment, hoping for a debate, but the decision announced by the mainland yesterday, which Li Fei reiterated today, was the last straw.

Following Beijing's ruling on election candidacy, Occupy Central's Benny Tai said that dialogue had now come to an end.

He said that there would be an "era of civil disobedience", including a mass sit-in to be organised at a later date in the Central financial district.

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