Hong Kong democracy activists take a gamble

AP News
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Posted: Dec 22, 2009 7:14 PM

Frustrated by an indifferent public, some of Hong Kong's democracy activists are preparing to take a political risk.

Two pro-democracy parties say five of their members will resign from the legislature next month to force special elections for their seats. They hope to turn the vote into a referendum on their cause and put fresh pressure on Beijing to allow electoral reform. But it could backfire: Given the current public mood, they well could lose.

Their gamble highlights how China, after a few early stumbles, has seized the upper hand in the debate about the territory's political future.

Hong Kong, a British colony for 150 years, was returned to China in 1997. The territory of 7 million people is semiautonomous, but only half its legislature is elected, with the remainder appointed by business and other interest groups. Its leader, or chief executive, is chosen by an 800-member committee controlled by Beijing.

The pro-democracy movement reached its height in 2003, when 500,000 people took to the streets to protest a proposed internal security bill, forcing the government to drop the legislation.

But China recognized that public discontent was as much with the rule of Tung Chee-hwa, then the chief executive, as a lack of democracy. In 2005, it replaced Tung with veteran civil servant Donald Tsang, who has proven more effective.

Beijing then further deflated the democracy movement in 2007 by promising to allow Hong Kong voters to choose their own leader _ though not until 2017 at the earliest. Similarly, it pledged an all-elected legislature, but not until 2020 or sometime later.

Though activists protested the open-ended nature of the commitment, the minutiae of the debate were lost on most Hong Kongers, who considered the matter settled.

Then the global economic crisis struck in late 2008, quickly overshadowing political concerns in this business-centric metropolis.

The government's latest political reform plan, though criticized by activists, drew yawns from the general public. The plan would expand the legislature and the committee that chooses the chief executive.

So two pro-democracy parties hatched the plan to have one lawmaker resign in each of Hong Kong's five geographical districts. With the financial crisis subsiding, they hope they can set the agenda again.

"It's very hard to summon 500,000 people to protest right now. So how do we return power to the people? We thought for a very long time and decided the best way is to turn a five-district resignation into a de facto referendum and start a new democratic movement," said legislator Albert Chan of the League of Social Democrats, one of the two parties.

The plan has divided the pro-democracy camp. Hong Kong's leading opposition party, the Democrats, voted not to take part, though the party's former chairman, Martin Lee, one of the territory's most respected democracy activists, is a vocal supporter.

The worry is that the ploy could cost the opposition crucial seats. The pro-democracy camp currently holds 23 of the 60 seats _ just enough to veto proposals that require a two-thirds majority.

"Not only does the resignation plan not protect us. It hurts us. We won't win more seats," Democratic Party legislator Fred Li said.

A University of Hong Kong poll released last week found 51 percent opposed the planned resignations and 26 percent supported them. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percent.

"The Chinese government has already said it (democracy) is not possible right now. But you insist on chasing the impossible with every method. What are the prospects in that?" said Lo Wing-ying, a 56-year-old cook. "Everyone wants a more democratic Hong Kong, but you can't force the issue ... So if you ask me, not only is this a futile effort, it's wasting the money of Hong Kong people."

Chan says the poll is misleading because the two pro-democracy parties haven't started to campaign.

"If you only do it if you know you can succeed, then you can scrap the whole democratic movement," said Audrey Eu, chairwoman of the Civic Party, the other party planning to resign seats. "We do our best and we hope for the best."

Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said nothing short of a resounding victory with high voter turnout would bolster the movement. It's an outcome he considers unlikely.