BEIJING – China’s top legislative body on Sunday struck a blow to democracy advocates in Hong Kong, ruling that Beijing can effectively veto candidates it deems undesirable from seeking the region’s top leadership job in a 2017 election.
The decision, while hardly unexpected, makes it virtually certain that Hong Kong will soon have large-scale protests and acts of civil disobedience that will disrupt one of China’s crucial hubs for trade and banking.
“The democrats will simply have to go to the streets now,” said Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Beijing’s leaders, he said, are “offering the kind of democracy where they get to vet the candidates, and that is unacceptable to a lot of people here.”
Since it was reunited with China in 1997, Hong Kong has enjoyed a semi-autonomous status, with freedoms of assembly and speech that residents on the mainland can only dream about. But China’s recent actions toward the former British colony have alarmed many Hong Kongers, concerned that they may soon lose rights they took for granted.
At issue is Beijing’s interpretation of Hong Kong’s “Basic Law,” a type of constitution that resulted from Great Britain’s decision to return the territory to China in 1984. The Basic Law includes language granting Hong Kong a “high degree” of autonomy, including the ability of residents to elect their chief executive in 2017.
How that election will be conducted is now in dispute. Activists in Hong Kong want groups and political parties in Hong Kong to be free to nominate their own candidates. Beijing officials and state media have said for months that would lead to chaos and is in violation of the Basic Law.
On Sunday, the National People’s Congress affirmed that position, meaning that a Hong Kong committee seen as beholden to Beijing will decide which two or three candidates can vie for Hong Kong’s top office. The nominating rules released Sunday require that candidates both “love the country (China)” and “love Hong Kong.”
On Sunday, one of the group’s pushing for open elections, Occupy Central, issued a statement saying it was disappointed that Beijing chose to close avenues for discussion. The group says in the next few weeks it will launch “wave after wave” of demonstrations. Some of the group’s critics fear such protests could shut down the city’s central business district and possibly give Beijing a reason to directly intervene.
Davis doubts it will come to that. “Hong Kong has a long history of peaceful protests,” he said.
On Sunday night, a youth group called Scholarism held a demonstration in Hong Kong without serious incident.
Beijing’s handling of Hong Kong’s future has garnered interest from China watchers worldwide, many looking for signs that Beijing might be willing to experiment with limited democratic reforms in a small corner of its territory. Those hopes seemed dashed now under Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has detained and arrested numerous lawyers and political activists on the mainland who have advocated for reform.