'Scant Room' for Reform Debate

A proposed reform to Hong Kong's electoral process launches a debate on how new legislative seats will be chosen.

hong-kong-305.jpg Protesters march against proposed political reforms in Hong Kong, June 2010.

HONG KONG—Hong Kong has 'little room' for debate over the latest proposals by ruling party members for changes to the territory's political system, officials say, with pro-democracy politicians vowing to vote against the package if no changes are made.

"Under the framework of the Standing Committee of [China's] National People's Congress (NPC) decision of 2007, we have already strived for maximum latitude in putting forth such a package," Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Stephen Lam told legislators this week.

Lam said Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Chief Executive Donald Tsang had already secured "a clear timetable" for the former British colony to progress to universal suffrage, apparently referring to the promise of full, direct elections for the Chief Executive in 2017 and for the entire Legislative Council (LegCo) in 2020, set out in Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

His comments came after Political Affairs Secretary Henry Tang told a news conference that there is only "limited space" for discussion.

"The space [for discussion] is really very small," Tang said.

A top NPC official added Beijing's voice to the debate earlier in the week, calling on LegCo to back the reforms, which the government says represent an attempt to advance democracy in Hong Kong.

The package, which will need to win two-thirds majority backing in LegCo when legislators vote on June 23, will bring in five new geographical constituencies for legislative and district elections, as well as five new "functional constituencies," which are currently chosen by interest groups such as industries and professions.

A functional constituency is a professional or special interest group involved in Hong Kong's electoral process. Eligible voters in a functional constituency may include individuals as well as other designated legal entities such as organizations and corporations.

Overall, the proportion of directly elected seats in LegCo, currently 50 percent, will remain unchanged.

Political analyst Joseph Cheng of Hong Kong's City University said Beijing appears to be trying to split the pan-democratic camp in Hong Kong politics.

"The Beijing authorities are hoping to use this political reform package as a way of splitting the democratic camp ... into two," Cheng said.

"One part is the so-called moderate faction, and the other part is the progressive faction. This is the basic aim of the united front. It is a strategy of divide and rule," Cheng said.

But he added that the plan could backfire and unite the pan-democrats in opposition to the proposals.

'Sense of genuine progress'

Democratic politicians have requested that citizens be allowed to elect the functional constituency LegCo members on a one-person one-vote basis.

Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho said the party had already suggested that the method be applied to the election of the new functional constituencies, leaving the existing functional constituency seats untouched.

"What we are asking is very basic," Ho said. "We are saying that the [new] functional constituencies should be nominated by district councilors from among themselves and then taken to cover every community in Hong Kong, who vote for them with one vote each."

"Right now the people in the geographical constituencies can't vote for the functional constituency seats," he added.

"It's a simple request, which at the very least will bring some sense of genuine progress for Hong Kong people. But it looks as if it hasn't met with a positive response," Ho said.

Deputy secretary-general of the NPC Standing Committee Qiao Xiaoyang has said the Hong Kong government's proposal for electing district council representatives is "appropriate." He did not completely rule out letting the people choose legislators.

But Lam said the idea would be "extremely difficult" to implement and is still very controversial.

Ho said his party wouldn't vote for the current reform plans if they remained unchanged.

Public opposition

Government officials out on a H.K. $9 million (U.S. $1.1 million) publicity campaign for the plans ran across vocal opponents, many of whom called for the total abolition of functional constituencies, which are easily controlled by the government or the pro-China business lobby.

When Chief Executive Donald Tsang, campaigning on Hong Kong Island, said that the matter of whether or not functional constituencies would remain could be discussed after the bill was passed, he was repeatedly greeted by shouts from the audience: "Down with functional constituencies! Abolish functional constituencies!"

When he arrived at the Shau Kei Wan residential district he was confronted by a group of protesters, whom he told that they shouldn't block political development.

"I hope that you will cease to impede the wheel [of history] from turning, and that we will be able to have universal suffrage," Tsang told onlookers. "We just need to have hope, and we can all come through this together."

Meanwhile, political affairs secretary Henry Tang was across the harbor in Kowloon, campaigning for the reform package. Supporters of the government and those of the pro-democracy camp faced off repeatedly.

Tang was repeatedly asked if he was standing for the post of Chief Executive in 2012, and whether there was a conflict of interest in his campaigning for the plans.

When Tang tried to leave the scene 10 minutes later, protesters lay in front of his official car and surrounded it, preventing him from leaving.

Hong Kong delegate to Beijing's NPC Rita Fan defended the campaign.

"The protesters' aim is that they don't want to see contact between citizens and the government, because they want to get photographs of them surrounding the Chief Executive and political affairs secretary in the papers so they can get some exposure," Fan told reporters.

"This will make everyone believe that the government's campaign isn't working."

Activist Fung Wai-wah, who has campaigned extensively for universal suffrage, said he is very disappointed with the reform proposals.

"I don't want to make any hasty comment here. The Alliance for Universal Suffrage has more than 10 member groups and it will take time for them to discuss this," he said.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Li Li and in Mandarin by Xin Yu. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Chinese and written in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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