HONG KONG – China’s legislature laid down strict limits Sunday to proposed voting reforms in Hong Kong, drawing battle lines in what pro-democracy groups warned would be a deepening confrontation over clashing visions of the political future of the city and of China.
Pushing back against months of rallies calling for free, democratic elections in Hong Kong, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee set out procedural barriers for candidates for the city’s leader that would ensure Beijing remained the gatekeeper to that position and to political power over the city.
Li Fei, a deputy secretary general of the committee, told a news conference in Beijing that the nominating guidelines – including a requirement that candidates “love the country, and love Hong Kong” – would “protect the broad stability of Hong Kong now and in the future.”
The move closes one of the few avenues left for gradual political liberalization in China after a sustained campaign against dissent on the mainland this year under President Xi Jinping. In pressing its offensive in Hong Kong, Beijing has chosen a showdown with a protest movement unlike any it has ever faced on the mainland. Hong Kong’s opposition forces enjoy civil liberties denied in the rest of China and, capitalizing on those freedoms, have taken a more confrontational approach than seen before in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong opposition groups and politicians who have campaigned for unfettered voting for the city’s leader, the chief executive, said the limits set by Beijing made a mockery of the “one person, one vote” that had been promised to Hong Kong.
“After having lied to Hong Kong people for so many years, it finally revealed itself today,” said Alan Leong, a pro-democracy legislator. “Hong Kong people are right to feel betrayed. It’s certain now that the central government will be effectively appointing Hong Kong’s chief executive.”
Occupy Central, the main Hong Kong group advocating open elections, said it was planning civil disobedience protests in the city’s commercial heart. Several thousand people turned out for a rally opposing Beijing’s plan Sunday night.
“We are no longer willing to be docile subjects,” Benny Tai, a co-founder of Occupy Central and a law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, told the crowd. “Our hope is that people gathered here will be dauntless civil resisters. What is our hope? Our hope is that today Hong Kong has entered a new era, an era of civil disobedience, an era of resistance.”
Other groups were also preparing to protest, and the Hong Kong Federation of Students urged university students to boycott classes.
Beyond its consequences for this former British colony of 7.2 million people, the tight reins on Hong Kong politics reflect a fear among leaders in Beijing that political concessions here would ignite demands for liberalization on the mainland, a quarter-century after such hopes were extinguished on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
“They are afraid that caving in to Hong Kong would show weakness,” Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, said in a telephone interview. “They believe that political weakness will encourage Hong Kong to demand more and will give opponents of the party’s rule in China great confidence to challenge the party.”
Since taking leadership of the Communist Party almost two years ago, Xi has orchestrated intense campaigns in China against political dissent and demands for competitive democracy, civil society and a legal system beyond party control. But Hong Kong presents special challenges.
Advocates and opponents of political liberalization alike have seen Hong Kong as a potential incubator for change in China since it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Since then, the territory has had considerable autonomy and retained a wealth of Western-style freedoms under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.”
The struggle over electoral change here pits the Chinese authorities and their allies in Hong Kong against an opposition that claims robust middle-class support, protections by the city’s independent judiciary and a voice in an independent, though beleaguered, news media.
“China’s two most important cities are Beijing and Hong Kong,” said Hu Jia, a prominent dissident in Beijing, in a telephone interview on Sunday. He said he had been placed under house arrest, like other dissidents, before the National People’s Congress announcement.
“In the territory controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, only Hong Kong has some space for free speech, some judicial independence, so it is a mirror for people on the mainland,” he said. “The outcome of this battle for democracy will also determine future battles for democracy for all of China.”
Chinese officials have accused Hong Kong’s democracy groups of serving as tools for subversion by Western forces seeking to chip away at party control.
Li, the legislative official, on Sunday accused them of “sowing confusion” and “misleading society” by arguing that elections for the chief executive should follow international standards.
“Each country’s historical, cultural, economic, social and political conditions and circumstances are different, and so the rules formulated for elections naturally also differ,” he said.
Under current law, the chief executive is chosen by an Election Committee, whose approximately 1,200 members are selected by constituencies generally loyal to Beijing and the city’s business elite.
According to the Chinese legislature’s proposal, the leader would be chosen by popular vote starting in 2017, as promised, but candidates would first have to win an endorsement from at least half the members of a nominating committee.
The composition of that committee would be based on that of the current Election Committee, according to the decision, announced at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
Li said the existing committee was already “broadly representative” of the Hong Kong electorate, and so would ‘furnish the right basis for a nominating committee’ in future elections,” an assertion that Hong Kong democrats have roundly rejected.
Democracy advocates expect that the new committee, like the existing one, would exclude candidates seen as unfavorable by Beijing.