Open Elections Ruled Out In Hong Kong; Potential Showdown Looms

Aug 31, 2014
Originally published on August 31, 2014 11:53 pm

China's National People's Congress on Sunday rejected calls for open elections for Hong Kong's next chief executive. The Chinese government said nominees must be chosen by a committee, which is expected to be filled with people who tilt towards Beijing.

"The Chief Executive shall be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong," the Congress said in a statement, which underscored that loyalty to the mainland government is a must.

The decision, which was expected, appears to put the authoritarian government in Beijing on a collision course with the territory's increasingly aggressive democracy movement, including the group Occupy Central, which has pledged to shut down the city's financial district with a mass sit-in.

Benny Tai, the group's leader, told a crowd of a few thousand that turned out in the rain on Sunday night that Hong Kong would now enter an "era of civil disobedience." Tai said organized protests would begin with student strikes, but did not lay out a timetable.

Martin Lee, founding chairman of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, said Beijing was "cheating" Hong Kongers of true democracy.

"Beijing can now select the candidates, puppets of course," he told the crowd in the city's Tamar Park, which is next to the chief executive's office and overlooks Victoria Harbor. "We want genuine universal suffrage, not democracy with Chinese characteristics."

When Hong Kong — a former British colony — returned to China in 1997, Beijing promised people there a high degree of autonomy and pledged that their way of life, which includes free speech, a free press and rule of law, would not change for 50 years.

Many, though, now feel their freedoms are eroding under mainland political pressure. Last week, officials from Hong Kong's otherwise well-respected Independent Commission Against Corruption raided the home of billionaire Jimmy Lai, who owns the independent Apply Daily newspaper. Lai is a huge critic of China's Communist Party and is apparently a major financial backer of the territory's pro-democracy movement. Some in Hong Kong saw the raid as an attempt to intimidate democratic activists.

The Communist Party, on the other hand, is wary of losing control over Hong Kong, a wealthy, sophisticated financial center that can sometimes be seen by mainland visitors as a more open alternative to the mainland's politically repressive system.

Chinese officials have long argued that Western-style democracy is not appropriate for the world's most populous country, which is very difficult to govern and has had a tumultuous and often bloody political past.

A successful, open election in Hong Kong — despite the territory's very different history — might make it harder for the Communist Party to continue to make that argument over time. It also might embolden democracy advocates on the mainland.

On Saturday, China's People's Daily, the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, said some in Hong Kong were working with outside forces to interfere with the governance of the territory.

"Not only are they undermining Hong Kong's stability and development, but they're also attempting to turn Hong Kong into a bridgehead for subverting and infiltrating the Chinese mainland," the article said. "This can absolutely not be permitted."

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. China's Communist Party sent a strong message today to the people of Hong Kong. Simply put, no open elections for you. The decision puts China's authoritarian government on a collision course with the territory's increasingly aggressive democracy movement. A few thousand people turned up today in Hong Kong to protest the ruling. For more, we turned to NPR's Frank Langfitt who's following the story from Shanghai. Frank, good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: What exactly are China's government and the pro-democracy movement arguing about?

LANGFITT: Well, specifically, this is about the way the chief executive will be elected for Hong Kong in 2017. Now the Democrats, they want the public to be able to nominate people and one person, one vote. China's OK with one person, one vote, but they want a committee, one that, frankly, will probably almost certainly tilt towards Beijing to select the nominees.

Not this pro-democracy group, the biggest one, Occupy Central, feels this is all rigged. And tonight at this protest downtown in a park, leader Benny Tai, he declared that the era of civil disobedience had begun in Hong Kong. And they're vowing eventually to shut down the city's financial center. But so far, they haven't given a timetable for when they're really going to kick off these mass protests.

WERTHEIMER: So what is at stake for the people in Hong Kong?

LANGFITT: A lot really. Hong Kong, you know, it was a former British colony. And when it came back to China in 1997, it was supposed to have a high degree of autonomy for 50 years. Hong Kong has free speech, free press, rule of law. Very different from the authoritarian system here on the mainland. But a lot of people in Hong Kong feel their freedoms are beginning to erode. And just last week is a pretty good example. Anti-corruption officials in Hong Kong rated the house of a guy named knee Jimmy Lai, he owns the Apply Daily newspaper. He's a huge critic of the Communist Party, big financial backer of the pro-democracy movement. And a lot of people in Hong Kong saw this as an attempt to really intimidate democracy borders there.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think the Communist Party is really worried about this pro-democracy movement?

LANGFITT: Well, I think that there - certainly they are concerned about losing control of Hong Kong. But they may be more concerned about the kind of precedent that it could set when they think about the mainland itself. You know, the party has always argued that Western-style democracy isn't appropriate for China. It's a huge, sprawling growing country, the largest population in the world and has a very specific, sometimes bloody and turbulent, political history. I think their concern maybe that if Hong Kong can freely choose its leaders and it goes well, it's going to make it little harder to keep telling mainlanders that they can't do the same. Also, you know, the Chinese Communist Party has a lot of problems out west in Tibet and certainly in Xinjiang where there are a lot of Muslims. In the northwest, there's a lot of resentment of the party and of ethnic majority Han Chinese. So the last thing the party really would want is more political power for people out there.

WERTHEIMER: So where do you think this is headed, Frank?

LANGFITT: Well, at the moment, if you believe what both sides are saying, this looks like it is headed for some kind of showdown over democracy, and certainly from the Hong Kong-ers point of view, the soul of the city. Occupy Central says they're going to kick this off with student protests. One of the questions will be can they get the numbers that they need? Beijing, of course, is going to be trying to oppose them every step of the way.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much. NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from Shanghai.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.