Hong Kong's election sparks fresh democracy calls

Former financial secretary John Tsang arrives to answer questions at a press conference held to announce his election platform in Hong Kong.

HONG KONG - The vote for Hong Kong's new leader kicks off this week, but most of its 3.8 million-strong electorate will have no say in choosing the winner, prompting calls for an overhaul of a system skewed towards Beijing.

It is the first leadership vote since mass pro-democracy protests in 2014 failed to win political reform and comes as fears grow that China is tightening its grip on semi-autonomous Hong Kong.

As the first round of voting begins, the four candidates are wooing the public - dropping in to no-frills cafes to eat local dishes with ordinary folk. But to little avail.

The winner will be chosen by a committee of 1,200 representatives of special interest groups, weighted towards Beijing. According to a count by local media, only around a quarter are in the pro-democracy camp.

The representatives are selected by a pool of around 230,000 voters from sectors ranging from business to education, and include the city's 70 lawmakers.

Democracy campaigners and some residents say it is inevitable the winner will answer to Chinese authorities - activists already vilify current leader Leung Chun Ying as a puppet of Beijing.

"The members of the electoral committee are only looking out for their own interests, how can they represent the Hong Kong people?" said engineer Mr Stone Shek, 49.

Hong Kongers were offered the chance to vote for the next leader in a Beijing-backed reform package, which stipulated that candidates must first be vetted, triggering the huge 2014 "Umbrella Movement" rallies.

Hundreds of anti-China protesters rally in Hong Kong as vote looms

  • Hong Kong's Financial Secretary John Tsang has resigned from his post, pending an announcement that he will run for the city's top job next March, Cable TV news reported.
  • The resignation ends months of speculation on whether the 65-year-old, currently topping popularity polls, wants to run for Chief Executive of Hong Kong.
  • Affectionately known as "Uncle Pringles" for his signature moustache, the US-educated lover of fencing and martial arts has served as the former British colony's finance minister since July 2007.
  • Candidates running for Chief Executive have to be vetted by a 1,200-strong Election Committee, which will be formed in December.
  • Around a thousand protesters rallied in Hong Kong against a crackdown on pro-democracy lawmakers and an electoral system skewed towards Beijing ahead of elections for a new city leader.
  • It comes a day after unpopular chief executive Leung Chun-Ying said he would not run for office again in the March vote.
  • While jubilant at his announcement, Leung's critics fear another hardline Beijing-backed leader will take his place.
  • There are increasing fears that China is tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous city, particularly after two pro-independence lawmakers advocating a complete split from Beijing were barred from taking up their seats.
  • The city's youngest lawmaker Nathan Law, 23, who is one of the four the government are seeking to unseat, addressed the crowd saying: "We need to use our legs, our bodies, to tell the regime they can't oppress us.
  • Protest leaders also slammed the electoral system in which the chief executive is chosen by a committee of 1,200 representatives from various special interest groups weighted towards the pro-establishment camp.

The proposal, dismissed by protesters as "fake democracy", was eventually voted down by lawmakers and the reform process has since been shelved.

Mr Shek said rejecting the proposal was the right thing to do.

But others fear Chinese authorities will never compromise.

"They didn't heed the tens of thousands that came out to protest the Umbrella Movement," said IT worker Tony So, 42, who believes anyone over 18 should be able to vote for the leader.

Election committee members start nominating their favourite candidate in the first round of voting on Tuesday.

Each needs 150 votes by March 1 to participate in the final election by the same committee on March 26.

Tough former deputy leader Carrie Lam is considered Beijing's favourite, while ex-finance secretary John Tsang is the other main contender, seen as a more moderate voice and leading in public opinion polls.

They take on hardliner Regina Ip and former judge Woo Kwok Hing, who is considered most sympathetic to the democracy camp.

Veteran activist Leung Kwok Hung - known as "Long Hair" - has said he may enter the race, but as yet there is no clear candidate from the pro-democracy side.

Many democracy supporters thought there was little point fielding a candidate who would have no chance with the pro-Beijing committee, says activist and academic Chan Kin Man.

Instead, democratic committee members would likely back Mr Tsang as the "lesser evil", he told AFP.

Activist Benny Tai, who founded the Occupy movement that helped galvanise the 2014 protests, compared the election to a "horse race" that residents can observe, but not influence.

"We need to work hard to maintain the movement and we will continue to strive for democracy," he told AFP.

Campaigners say they are playing the long game, hoping to build representation from the ground up - citywide public elections in September saw former Umbrella Movement leaders become lawmakers.

But since then, two pro-independence legislators have been barred from taking up their seats after Beijing protests, while other pro-democracy figures are also facing disqualification.

Some residents say they have faith the election committee will choose the right leader.

"The people in the 'small circle' also want Hong Kong to prosper and develop," said finance analyst Polly Chen, 50.

But eventually, Ms Chen added, Hong Kongers should decide.

"We have to start somewhere," she said of the road to reform. "We may get it wrong, but we need to start."