Beijing Rules Out Hong Kong Electoral Reform Concessions
Vote over the electoral-reform package slated for late June
By Isabella Steger in the Wall Street Journal
HONG KONG—Beijing officials emphasized that there will be no concessions over electoral reform in Hong Kong during a rare meeting with pro-democracy lawmakers Sunday, effectively quashing any possibility of a compromise between the two sides.
A group of 14 out of a bloc of 27 pro-democracy lawmakers attended the meeting in a Shenzhen hotel, in response to an invitation extended by the Hong Kong government last week to all lawmakers. Some chose not to attend, arguing that the meeting would be fruitless anyway.
The meeting comes just weeks ahead of a vote over the electoral-reform package for the 2017 chief executive election in Hong Kong, which requires a two-thirds majority in the legislature to pass. Though pro-democracy lawmakers have vowed repeatedly to veto the package, some saw the talks as a last-minute opportunity for a compromise to be struck.
The three officials who met with Hong Kong lawmakers were the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Wang Guangya, Basic Law Committee chairman Li Fei, and director of the liaison office in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming.
The officials insisted that there would be no changes to the rules laid down by Beijing last August, that candidates running in the election must be prescreened by a nominating committee loyal to Beijing and prove their patriotic credentials. That decision drove tens of thousands to the streets last year in the Occupy protests in Hong Kong, protesting that the framework would effectively exclude any pro-democracy candidates from running and doesn’t provide a genuine choice to voters.
Jasper Tsang, president of the Legislative Council and a veteran pro-Beijing politician, told reporters that Sunday’s meeting, which lasted for four hours, “did not achieve the outcome of increasing the possibility of the package being passed.”
The government rolled out the final version of the electoral reform package in March following a second round of public consultation, with very minor tweaks made to the nominating process for candidates which didn’t satisfy opposition lawmakers.
Since then, both sides have embarked on public relations offensives to convince the public of their stance. The government is pushing a line that the pro-democracy bloc of lawmakers is holding hostage the right of five million voters to vote in 2017. The opposition hopes to convince people that greenlighting what they call a sham election with no promise of further improvements in subsequent elections means the end of the road for the city’s democratic development.
“[Beijing] is not going to yield an iota,” said Alan Leong, a lawyer and member of the Civic Party, who led the group of pro-democracy legislators. “We are therefore left with no choice but to definitely veto” the package. The vote is scheduled for late June.
Some democracy supporters in Hong Kong feared that secret deals could be struck during Sunday’s closed door meetings, in a repeat of what happened in 2010 when members of the Democratic Party accepted last-minute compromises from Beijing on electoral reform, a decision that split the opposition camp.
Many believe that Beijing is attempting a strategy of divide and conquer by appealing to more moderate lawmakers so that it can win the four defections it needs to prevent a veto in the legislature.
Mr. Wang called on what he said is the more moderate majority of the pro-democracy lawmakers to face up to their responsibility at this “historical juncture,” while castigating the more radical lawmakers who he said has been working with “foreign forces” to challenge Beijing’s authority and foment Hong Kong independence.
“These people will be ruled out from the chief executive race because if they are elected it will be a disaster for Hong Kong and the country,” said Mr. Wang.
The reference to the involvement of foreign forces is one that has repeatedly been used by Beijing officials, as well as Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying. Mr. Leung has said that he is in possession of evidence proving this, and said he would release it at a suitable date.
Some more moderate democracy supporters have fielded possible ideas for a compromise, such as tweaking the 1,200-member nominating committee to make it less heavily skewed toward Beijing and possible for an opposition candidate to stand. Others have backed a suggestion to allow a “none of the above” option on the ballot in 2017, but Beijing officials have ruled out these suggestions.
The officials also said that a majority of Hong Kong people want the package to be passed. Some opinion polls conducted by groups that lean toward the government have shown more than half of Hong Kong people support the package, but one rolling opinion poll conducted by three universities in Hong Kong in the past month or so shows the gap between those opposed to and supporting the package oscillating between 2% at its lowest point and 14% at the widest, with neither side ever breaching 50%.