Tuesday, Sep 16, 2014Tuesday, Sep 16, 2014

Hong Kong's political unrest: 7 things about the situation

Published on Sep 1, 2014 1:59 PM

Hong Kong has been plunged into one of the worst political crises since its handover to Chinese rule, as pro-democracy activists vow to take over the streets of the financial district following Beijing's refusal to grant citizens full universal suffrage. Here's what you should know about the situation:

1. What is Hong Kong's relationship with China?

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back to China on July 1, 1997. Under China's principle of "one country, two systems", Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs, for 50 years. As a result, the city has its own legal system, and rights including freedom of assembly and free speech are protected. Its leader, the chief executive, is elected by a 1,200-member election committee in which a majority of the members are seen as pro-Beijing. Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, states that the ultimate aim is to elect the chief executive "by universal suffrage". China has promised direct elections for the chief executive in 2017

2. What are the changes?

On Aug 31, 2014, China's top legislative body - the National People's Congress' Standing Committee (NPCSC) - unanimously passed a resolution stating that there must be a "broadly representative" nominating committee to vet contenders for the election in 2017. It said the panel's composition and size must match those of the 1,200-strong election committee that now picks the Chief Executive. That committee is filled with Beijing loyalists and industry interests. In addition, candidates must get the votes of at least half the panel before they can run in the election - higher than the current one-eighth threshold, which allowed pan-democrat candidates to go through. The number of candidates will be capped at two or three.

3. What do democracy activists say?

Democracy activists believe China will use the nominating committee to screen out candidates it disapproves of. They also say the strict election rules close the door on any talks to enlarge the panel to make it more representative.

A so-called Occupy Central movement has threatened to blockade Hong Kong's central business district if Beijing does not allow open nominations. Led by academic Benny Tai, the Occupy Central movement had organised an unofficial referendum on political reform that was held from June 20 to 29, 2014. Voters were asked to choose from three proposals for the 2017 election, all of which involved allowing citizens to choose who to nominate as a candidate for the top job. A total of 792,808 voters cast ballots. The movement claimed the high turnout - about one in five registered voters - showed it had strong backing from the public.

Shortly after the unofficial vote, tens of thousands of protesters took part in a rally on July 1, which observers said was Hong Kong's largest pro-democracy rally in a decade. Those pressing for greater suffrage are a mixture of lawmakers, academics, students and ordinary citizens. Younger generations are generally more active in pro-democracy circles than their parents.

4. What does China say?

China has defended its ruling on election candidacy for Hong Kong. Mr Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of the NPCSC, said the nominating guidelines would "protect the broad stability of Hong Kong now and in the future". Beijing had earlier condemned the pro-democracy protests and called the unofficial referendum by the Occupy Central Movement a "farce". In a White Paper in June 2014 outlining China's authority over Hong Kong, Beijing said some had a "confused and lopsided" understanding of the "one country, two systems" model. It stressed that while Hong Kong has a "high degree of autonomy", it is "not full autonomy" and the mainland still has "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong.

5. What does the Hong Kong government say?

Chief executive Leung Chun-ying said Beijing's decision represented a major step forward in Hong Kong's development. "Universal suffrage for the (chief executive) election through 'one person, one vote' by Hong Kong people is not only a big step forward for Hong Kong, but also a historic milestone for our country," Mr Leung said, adding that people should express their opinion through peaceful and legal methods.

In a report submitted to Beijing in July, Mr Leung said that mainstream Hong Kong society agreed with Beijing on how electoral reform should proceed. The report was based on public consultation with the Hong Kong public but it drew fire from pro-democracy activists, who said Mr Leung had misrepresented public opinion.

The Hong Kong government had also said the unofficial referendum had no legal standing and it welcomed the Chinese government's White Paper, saying that Hong Kong had benefited from the "one country, two systems" model.

6. What do pro-China groups say?

Pro-Beijing groups, such as Silent Majority for Hong Kong and Caring Hong Kong Power, have criticised the pro-democracy activists for "endangering" the city. They argue that continued civil disobedience and opposition to Beijing would only damage the city's reputation and economy, as well as its relationship with China. These groups have organised several protests against the pro-democracy movement and its biggest event, held on Aug 17, was attended by thousands. The rally was unusual as large-scale pro-government protests are rare in Hong Kong. But some have questioned the legitimacy of the rally, as there were reports that some protesters were paid to participate in the rally.

Business leaders, who favour stability in Hong Kong, have also opposed pro-democracy protests. A number of businesses have taken out advertisements in the local media, saying the city's status as an international trading hub is at risk should the Occupy Central Movement go ahead with its takeover.

7. What's next?

Occupy Central has said the time for dialogue is over and has pledged a series of actions culminating in a mass sit-in of at least 10,000 people in the financial district in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Federation of Students would begin boycotting classes in mid-September and it said students at 11 schools had confirmed their participation.

Opposition lawmakers have also vowed to block the passage of the electoral Bill. To become law, the Bill will require two-thirds of the 70-member legislature to support it, meaning the legislation could be halted by the 27 opposition members. If the proposal is rejected, Hong Kong will continue to have its leader picked by a 1,200-member election committee.