HONG KONG - The Hong Kong government has formally asked Beijing for permission to amend electoral laws to allow Hong Kongers to elect their leader in 2017 - a first step in the city's constitutional reform that Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying described as "historic".
But completing the process will be tough, he acknowledged, with the city deeply polarised.
The Hong Kong government's report to China's legislature yesterday did not offer specific reform proposals, but in a hint of what is likely to come, stated repeatedly that "mainstream opinion" holds that only a nominating committee can propose candidates, as stated in the Basic Law.
The 107-page report, which sums up views canvassed over a five-month consultation period, also said most Hong Kongers believe their leader should be one who "loves the country and loves Hong Kong". It did not give the respective percentages.
The assertions run contrary to what pro-democracy advocates are clamouring for - in particular, the right for the public to nominate candidates. They charge that a vetting committee, using such "subjective" criteria, is a ruse to rule out pro-democracy candidates.
The report thus sets the stage for a likely showdown, with the pro-democracy camp becoming increasingly aggressive. Already, three civic groups - Scholarism, the Federation of Students and Civil Human Rights Fronts - yesterday declared that they will start a civil disobedience movement next month. An unofficial democracy poll last month attracted 780,000 voters.
On July 1, hundreds of thousands marched to call for universal suffrage. Hundreds of students later staged an illegal sit-in on a major road in Central before they were arrested. Another group, Occupy Central, has also threatened to mobilise up to 10,000 people as a "last resort" to pressure the government should their demands not be met - a move that has spooked Beijing.
Yesterday, Mr Leung appealed for cooler heads to prevail, saying at a press conference: "We will be able to take a big stride forward in the democratic development of Hong Kong if we are willing to forge consensus as much as we can and leave behind our differences in a rational and pragmatic manner on the remaining work."
But critics charge that there was little show of goodwill from the government itself. A separate report by the Chief Executive acknowledged the "considerable views" calling for public nomination.
But, argued legislators quizzing Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, it did not adequately reflect the force of public sentiment wanting what they termed "genuine universal suffrage". The turnouts for the referendum and the march were not mentioned.
Mr James To of the Democratic Party said: "Some 780,000 voted for public nomination, but you described it merely as 'some people' - is that fair? If you say it like that, Beijing will think it is just a few people (who want it), and make the wrong decision."
Radical lawmaker Leung Kwok Hung hurled an inflatable hammer and a birdcage with the words "public nomination" inside it towards Mrs Lam.
The different players hold respective cards, each with the potential to stymie Hong Kong's progress towards democracy. The country's legislature, the National People's Congress' Standing Committee (NPCSC), will decide at its meeting next month on Hong Kong's request. It has the prerogative to reject it, but is unlikely to do so. Instead, it could potentially attach certain conditions.
The Hong Kong government will then launch a second round of public consultation on specific proposals, and submit a plan to the Legislative Council. It requires a two-thirds majority to pass, meaning some pro-democracy lawmakers must vote for it. After that, the approval of NPCSC is required.
Looking ahead, Mr Leung pledged that his government will seek to narrow differences. One way, he suggested, is to arrange for mainland officials to meet pro-democracy legislators.
This article was first published on July 16, 2014.
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