Hong Kongers head to the polls Sunday to choose candidates for the semiautonomous city’s legislature, in the first major election since 2014 pro-democracy street protests.
That movement drew world attention to the former British colony’s struggle over stunted democratic development under Chinese rule and paved the way for a burgeoning independence movement that’s complicating the upcoming vote. Here’s a look at the issues:
‘Umbrella’ Activists Are Challenging Beijing
Candidates from a new wave of activist groups that emerged in the wake of the student-led “Umbrella” or “Occupy” movement are challenging established pro-Beijing and “pan-democrat” parties for seats in the Legislative Council, or Legco. With the nonviolent 2014 protests failing to yield any concessions from Beijing over its plan to restrict elections for the city’s top leader, many activists support more confrontational tactics and radical action. In all, 214 candidates are running for 35 seats.
Will Pro-Democracy Camp Get Enough Seats
Pro-democracy candidates will compete with each other and with a narrower range of candidates from well-funded pro-Beijing parties. The voting results, expected Monday, will reflect to some extent the degree of anti-Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong, as authorities take an increasingly hard line. But they’ll also be colored by the pro-Beijing side’s ability to muster resources, and by the pro-democracy camp’s disorganization. The main thing to watch for will be whether pro-democracy parties hold on to at least one third of council seats, enough to block legislation. They currently hold 27 of 70 seats.
Government Threatens Action Against Independence Calls
A key theme of this year’s vote is a growing call for independence from China, which took control of the city from Britain in 1997. Such talk was once considered unthinkable but has become commonplace as residents fret over Beijing’s tightening grip. A university poll in July of about 1,000 people found 17.4 percent supported independence, though only 4 percent thought it possible. This summer, election officials disqualified six candidates for pro-independence views and required candidates to sign a pledge that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China. On Tuesday the Hong Kong government threatened it would take unspecified action against candidates advocating independence, though it did not name any.
Other Options on the Table
Not all the newcomers advocate independence. Some want Hong Kong-focused localism and others desire full autonomy. Rookie candidate Nathan Law’s Demosisto party proposes a referendum on “self-determination” for Hong Kong. The party was founded in April by Law, 23, and 19-year-old activist Joshua Wong, both of whom were sentenced to community service last month for joining a unlawful assembly that sparked the 2014 protests.
Democrates Want Direct Election For Leader
Council elections are held every four years. Half of the 70 seats are not up for citywide election; they are tied to various business and trade groups, such as finance, fishing and medicine, and people in those sectors will decide who fills them. People with Communist Party ties dominated many of these “functional constituencies,” and pro-democracy groups want the special-interest seats eliminated. They also want direct elections for Hong Kong’s top leader, currently hand-picked by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing elites. China’s government insists on screening out unfriendly candidates.
The Teen Protest Leader
At 19, Joshua Wong is already a veteran of Hong Kong’s democracy battle. The slight, bespectacled activist shot to global prominence two years ago when his high school group Scholarism helped lead massive protests against Beijing’s plan for restricted elections for the city’s top leader. The protests brought key districts to a standstill for 11 weeks but did not gain concessions.
Now Wong’s new political party, Demosisto, is joining the election fray by fielding 23-year-old Nathan Law, another Occupy protest veteran. A minimum age requirement of 21 prevents Wong himself from running.
Amid rising calls for Hong Kong’s independence, Demosisto proposes a referendum on self-determination for Hong Kong after a transition period to Chinese rule ends in 2047. The city became Chinese territory in 1997 after Britain’s departure, but retains wide autonomy.
“We believe people should gain the right to determine their future,” Wong said.
Wong said recent incidents have added to fears Beijing is undermining Hong Kong’s rule of law and judicial independence. In the most prominent case, five booksellers were detained, including one suspected of being snatched by Chinese security agents and spirited across the border to the mainland.
“If Hong Kong does not have rule of law anymore, Hong Kong is not Hong Kong anymore,” Wong said.
A new crop of activist groups has sought to use the election to channel growing frustration, especially among young people, over Beijing’s uncompromising stance on Hong Kong. Many of these radical activist “localist” groups, which sprang up after the unresolved ending of the 2014 protests, espouse the view that Hong Kong’s interests come first. Some even demand independence for the city.
Despite there being no chance of separation, the government has tried to shut down the debate. Election officials disqualified six candidates with pro-independence views from running, including 25-year-old Andy Chan of the Hong Kong National Party, and warned others not to advocate the idea or it would take “follow-up actions.”
Hong Kong’s independence “is bound to occur. It’s the only way out,” said Chan. In an interview, Chan revealed few details about his group, such as how many members it has.
“The people of Hong Kong have fought for democracy for many years and have always respected the Chinese government,” he said.
Chan said he believes Hong Kongers should direct their demands to Beijing because “the Hong Kong government is only a puppet government, a colonial government. So our target all along has been the Chinese government.”
“The way I see it,” he added, “if Hong Kong becomes independent, if we break off the relationship, then we don’t need to beg the Beijing government for democracy. We will have democracy.”
Former security chief Regina Ip is one of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-Beijing figures. In 2003, she spearheaded the government’s failed efforts to enact controversial anti-subversion legislation, which faced massive public opposition, with half a million people taking to the streets to protest against it.
Ip is now a lawmaker known for her hard-line views who’s running for re-election.
“Hong Kong has been highly polarized by the constitutional debate on how to elect the chief executive, by the Occupy Central movement,” Ip said. She said much public anger is stemming from income inequality.
Ip said young people are calling for independence because they feel marginalized by China’s economic rise, which leaves them feeling unable to compete for jobs. She said stalled democratic development is adding to the frustration, and that Hong Kong needs to become more competitive.
“I am trying to mobilize the silent majority to vote for reconciliation, to vote for a constructive way forward,” she said.
Ip said the idea of independence is a “non-starter.”
“We get all our water from the mainland, most of our fresh fruits are from the mainland, even our building materials, and a lot of business is from the mainland,” she said. “I don’t think Hong Kong can survive without the mainland.”
The Democracy Veteran
While the new crop of activist candidates and their older mainstream counterparts both want Beijing to back off and give Hong Kong genuine democracy, there are sharp disagreements over how to get what they want.
The activists slam the mainstream parties for using peaceful protests and negotiations with Beijing, saying that violence could be justified to achieve their aims. Mainstream pro-democracy parties believe that, under the “one country, two systems” framework, Hong Kong is part of China and they should fight to bring democracy to the mainland. The radicals disagree and say Hong Kong should focus only on itself.
Veteran pro-democracy lawmaker Emily Lau, who expects to step down after this election, said Hong Kong should brace for more confrontations in the streets and in the council chamber if radical candidates win seats. It’s already common there for the city’s Beijing-backed leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, to be heckled by his harshest critics. One threw a water glass at Leung two years ago.
Lau said bitter divisions in Hong Kong could be resolved by dumping the deeply unpopular Leung, whose term ends next summer. Disagreements over how to choose the next chief executive were at the heart of 2014’s pro-democracy protests, with Beijing requiring that candidates be screened.
“Hong Kong is now facing its darkest hour since 1997, because the city is completely split asunder, by the policy of C.Y. Leung and Beijing,” said Lau.
Pro-democracy candidates and even some from pro-Beijing parties are campaigning on the theme of replacing Leung. It’s still unclear whether Beijing will tap him for a second term but a big victory for the anti-Leung camp would pressure China’s Communist Party leaders to find someone else.
“If we get rid of him, if we have a government which is more willing to listen to the people (to) come up with policies which are more acceptable, then maybe we can begin to heal the wounds,” said Lau.
Text from the AP news story, AP EXPLAINS: What’s at stake in Hong Kong post-protest vote and Splintering factions add uncertainty to Hong Kong election, by Kelvin Chan.
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