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Moment that mattered: Hong Kong’s legislature rejects China’s plan for electoral reform

Protesters carry yellow umbrellas during a rally as people march in a downtown street to support for a veto of the government’s electoral reform package in Hong Kong, Sunday, June 14, 2015. The rally was held ahead of a crucial vote by lawmakers on Beijing-backed election reforms that sparked huge street protests last year. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

Protesters carry yellow umbrellas during a rally as people march in a downtown street to support for a veto of the government’s electoral reform package in Hong Kong, Sunday, June 14, 2015. The rally was held ahead of a crucial vote by lawmakers on Beijing-backed election reforms that sparked huge street protests last year. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

Many have compared China’s proposed electoral reform system for Hong Kong to that of North Korea or Iran. The plan would have allowed Hongkongers to vote directly for their leader for the first time in 2017, but with a choice of only two or three candidates – all nominated by a committee that leans toward the Communist Party of China. As activist Martin Lee, godfather of democracy in Hong Kong, puts it, it’s like choosing between a rotten apple, a rotten banana and a rotten orange.

Last year’s pro-democracy protests, known as the Umbrella Movement or Occupy Central, were a direct response to Beijing’s announcement of this plan – often called ‘fake democracy’ by activists. The rejection of China’s plans by the Hong Kong legislature has ultimately reset everything to the status quo, and we go towards the 2017 election in uncertainty.

On the day of the vote the legislative chamber was in complete disarray. One lawmaker was stuck in traffic and 31 pro-Beijing politicians staged a walkout in an attempt to strip the chamber of its quorum and delay the vote for him. But several didn’t receive (or didn’t heed) the memo to leave, and a quorum remained, so the vote went ahead with 31 politicians outside, powerless. No one quite understood what the hell was happening.

The package was rejected, with 28 votes against and only eight for. It needed a two-thirds majority to pass, so ultimately it would have been rejected either way. Nevertheless, it’s an embarrassment [for China]. Some pro-Beijing politicians broke down in tears – it was very bizarre. When Hong Kong’s leader CY Leung met the media he blamed the 28 who voted no for rejecting “most of Hong Kong residents’ wishes”, but if you look at opinion polls, the majority of Hongkongers were not in favour of the package.

“On the day of the vote the legislative chamber was in complete disarray”

I set up Hong Kong Free Press – an independent and not-for-profit online news source – in June as a direct response to press freedom concerns and to cover events like this impartially. We’ve got eight reporters now and we attracted 1.3 million page views in our first month, but it hasn’t been easy. There are archaic attitudes here about accrediting new media. We can’t get access to the central government offices; we’re barred from the government information system and its official press releases. Regardless, we’re here to stay. We’re learning the rules in order to bend them later on.

We posted coverage of the vote debacle just one minute after the city’s largest English-language newspaper, South China Morning Post. We were happy with that. Seeing the analytics spike when people are looking at the site makes my adrenaline levels spike at the same time.

People are exhausted after Occupy Central and this, in many ways, has been the epilogue. It’s unclear where things will go next. The pro-democracy movement is fragmented. Many are getting more radicalised, calling for secession; there have been violent protests against the mainland. There’s concern that Beijing might use that as an excuse to crack down with a national security law.

The Umbrella Movement saw the flame of democracy pass from the older generation to those who might not remember Tiananmen in 1989, or even the handover from the UK in 1997. But it’s those guys who have to deal with whatever happens in 2047, when the city’s 50-year period of autonomy is dissolved. Will we be absorbed into the mainland and become another grey Chinese city, or will our autonomy be extended?

Hong Kong could have been a testing ground for democracy for the rest of China, but it’s become a warning. It wasn’t meant to be like this.


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