Saturday 20 June 2015

Hong Kong lawmakers throw out Beijing-backed poll package

City in deadlock over picking leader as China's top legislature refuses to budge
The Straits Times, 19 Jun 2015

HONG KONG - Hong Kong lawmakers yesterday rejected a Beijing-backed electoral reform package derided as "fake democracy" during mass protests last year, leaving the city in deadlock over how its leader should be chosen.

The government's electoral roadmap would have given all residents the right to vote for the chief executive for the first time in 2017, but they would be able to choose only from candidates vetted by a Beijing-loyalist panel.

Twenty-eight of the 70 lawmakers in the legislature voted against the plan. Only eight voted in favour after a failed bid to delay the vote through a walkout left most supporters of the plan outside the chamber for the ballot.

"This result is not what we want to see," Beijing's Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said after the vote, which required support from two-thirds of the assembly's lawmakers to pass. He said China wanted to "press ahead with the democratic development of Hong Kong" in the interests of stability and prosperity in the former British colony.

However, China's top legislature was adamant that the principles it laid down for the direct election of the city's leader would stay. "The decision shall continue to serve as the constitutional ground for Hong Kong in the future as it enforces universal suffrage in the chief executive election, and its legal force is unquestionable," said a statement from the National People's Congress Standing Committee.

Analysts agreed that Beijing was unlikely to alter its stance on the vetting of candidates, and the authorities in Hong Kong have said the political reform debate is now off the table for 2017.

"It is time to move on," Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying told reporters after the vote. "For the next two years, the government will focus the efforts on the various economic development and livelihood issues."

The chief executive will continue to be chosen by a 1,200-strong committee of the city's mostly Beijing-friendly elite that has selected all three leaders since the city was returned to China in 1997.

The vote marked a bitter-sweet victory for the pro-democratic lawmakers who failed to convince Beijing to permit candidates to be chosen freely.

"We do not want our votes to be used to legitimise a pre-vetting system," said Mr Alan Leong, leader of the Civic Party. "We do not want our votes to be used to legitimise a chief executive that belongs and is accountable to only the vested interests."

Supporters of the plan argued that partial democracy would offer the chief executive more legitimacy than the current system, and allowing Hong Kong residents to vote for their leader was more important than arguing about how the candidates were chosen.

"I firmly believe the electoral reform is the best proposal that the government can put forward," Chief Secretary Carrie Lam said just before the vote. "It's also the best for Hong Kong and China's interests."

Pro-democracy lawmakers posed for photographs with yellow umbrellas, a symbol of last year's protest movement, after the vote. Crowds of people supporting the Bill dissipated as the results filtered out.

There was little of the tensions that led to the clashes last year during the occupation that sapped tourism and retail sales.

The rejection of the proposal lessens the likelihood of a renewal of the mass protests, and investors have taken it in their stride. The benchmark stock market index fell around 0.6 per cent after the vote but quickly rebounded.


Hong Kong faces political stalemate
City may face governance issues as public sees more Beijing interference
The Straits Times, 19 Jun 2015

HONG KONG - Hong Kong faces a prolonged political impasse after pro-democratic lawmakers rejected a China-backed plan for its political future and scuttled the Asian financial hub's first leadership election.

Twenty-eight of 70 lawmakers voted against the Bill, denying Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying the two-thirds majority needed to pass legislation setting up the citywide election. The result was cheered by democracy advocates, who argued the plan would have let China's Communist Party screen out candidates before they reached a popular vote.

The defeat provides a consolation prize to the Occupy Central protesters who seized city streets for almost three months last year in a failed effort to pressure President Xi Jinping to drop the candidate vetting.

While the result is an embarrassment for China, it also means the next Chief Executive will be selected by the same panel of elites that has consistently chosen pro-Beijing leaders since Britain handed over the former colony in 1997. Failure to resolve the debate will let fester a major source of tension in last year's protests: the belief that China is encroaching on the "high degree of autonomy" promised to Hong Kong and altering its economic, legal and political systems.

"It will mean more governance problems because the public is seeing more Beijing interference in Hong Kong," said Mr Michael Davis, a constitutional law professor at the University of Hong Kong.

"The Occupy movement is not just about democracy, it is about autonomy and the rule of law."

The defeated proposal would have allowed five million people to vote for a Chief Executive from candidates selected by a panel of 1,200 tycoons, lawmakers and industry representatives. Opponents argued the committee would be stacked with Beijing loyalists and people who benefit from the city's yawning wealth gap and soaring property prices.

Democracy advocates complain about China's creeping influence over the media, schools and courts since the handover. Surging wealth on the mainland has flowed across the border, driving up the cost of everything from housing to consumer goods, while wages stagnate.

About half of Hong Kong workers earn less than HK$14,000 (S$2,400) a month, and 7.7 per cent less than HK$5,000, according to government figures. They live in the most expensive housing market out of 378 markets tracked by the consultant Demographia.

Investors have been unperturbed by the civic turmoil. Since China outlined the voting guidelines that triggered the protests on Aug 31, the benchmark Hang Seng Index has climbed 8 per cent, outstripping the MSCI Asia Pacific Index, which has fallen 1 per cent in the period.

"The medium-term threat isn't that Shanghai will suddenly be able to do what Hong Kong is today far better at," said Mr Paul Serfaty, a director of Asian Capital Partners Group, an investment bank.

"It's that the vital spirit of Hong Kong people - driven first by their refugee status and later by their hunger for success - will be suppressed as young people grow to believe that the cards are stacked against them."


Beijing slams HK legislators over veto
They are called 'disturbers, destroyers' by state media for rejecting poll package
The Straits Times, 20 Jun 2015

BEIJING - China's Foreign Ministry and state media lashed out at Hong Kong's opposition pro-democracy lawmakers after the legislature in the financial hub vetoed a Beijing-backed electoral reform package.

"Certain people, whose aim was to hobble the development of democracy in Hong Kong, voted against the Bill in the legislature," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters. "They will bear the responsibility of history for this."

The Chinese Communist Party's official People's Daily newspaper stated in a commentary in its overseas edition: "The conduct and deeds of the opposition faction show that they are disturbers and destroyers in the process of the democratisation of Hong Kong."

Referring to the 28 lawmakers who voted against the proposal, it wrote: "The goal of their veto of the universal suffrage Bill is to contest the governance of Hong Kong by the central government, conspiring to turn Hong Kong into an independent political entity."

The rejection was a rare instance of the former British colony voting heavily against a proposal endorsed by China's central legislature. The largely rubber-stamp regional legislatures around China would likely never reject an order from Beijing to pass a Bill, so the veto is both a setback and an embarrassment for the ruling Communist Party.

Hong Kong's pro-democracy opposition calls Beijing's proposal a "fake" democratic model.

"All those who voted against the blueprint might be cocky today, but they will face the judgment of history and shoulder the responsibility eventually," The Global Times tabloid, published by the People's Daily, said in an editorial in its English edition. "We are concerned that a Pandora's box is being opened in Hong Kong and various devils are released to ruin the region's future," it said, warning that Hong Kong could "degenerate from the capital of finance and fashion to a total mess".

The South China Morning Post opined in an editorial that government officials, pan-democrats and the pro-establishment camp, despite failing to agree on how Hong Kong should proceed on political reforms, agree that all will lose out as a result.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam had warned in April that the Bill's rejection would divide the city further and adversely affect governance.

Meanwhile, Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying said he would bring a series of economic initiatives to lawmakers next week, after economists warned that business in the Asian financial hub could be undermined by the veto. He said that Democratic lawmakers' filibustering of all Budget items during the pro-democracy protests would hurt the community if they continued. "It's time for all of us to move on," he said. "We should try to forge consensus on various economic and livelihood issues."


Road to universal suffrage
- June 10, 2014: Beijing issues Hong Kong White Paper condemned by democracy campaigners.
- June 30: 800,000 people vote in favour of greater democratic freedoms in an unofficial referendum organised by the protest group Occupy Central.
- Aug 31: China insists on its right to vet candidates for Hong Kong's next leadership election in 2017. In response, Occupy Central and other groups vow to embark on an "era of civil disobedience".
- Sept 22: University students begin boycotting classes.
- Sept 28: Occupy Central joins students, announcing it has begun civil disobedience campaign. Clashes ensue.
- Oct 3: Student leaders agree to Hong Kong leader Leung Chun Ying's offer of talks. But they are called off after rallies get increasingly ugly.
- Nov 18: Protesters attempt to storm Parliament, sparking clashes, as court-ordered clearances get under way.
- Dec 11: Hong Kong police dismantle city's main protest site, hauling off protesters.
- April 22, 2015: Hong Kong announces a roadmap for the leadership election.
- May 31: Pro-democracy lawmakers say they will veto the government's proposal.
- June 15: Police arrest 10 people involved in making explosives.
- June 17: Lawmakers begin debating reform package in the legislative assembly.
- June 18: The reform package is rejected, with just eight lawmakers supporting the proposal and 28 against it.

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