Five pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong resigned yesterday, vowing to turn the resulting elections into a populist referendum for universal suffrage in defiance of warnings from China.
About 50 onlookers, with a similar number of press in attendance, applauded under leaden skies as the lawmakers staged the most high-profile challenge yet to China’s stewardship of the glitzy financial hub.
Three members of the League of Social Democrats and two from the Civic Party tendered their resignations at the Legislative Council, a toothless body in British colonial times that critics say remains a rubber stamp under Beijing.
“We are giving the opportunity back to the people to vote for real democracy,” Civic Party leader Audrey Eu (余若薇) said after her two colleagues quit.
“So we call on the people, if you truly believe in democracy, there is no reason to fear,” Eu said.
Two days before their resignations take effect on Friday, the lawmakers plan to outline their goals at what promises to be a stormy council session today as they face off against pro-Beijing forces.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang (曾蔭權) said the government “deeply regrets” the lawmakers' resignations and that their so-called referendum had no legal basis. But he said the government was under a statutory duty to organize by-elections.
“As the chief executive, I did not wish to see the situation we have arrived at today. But we have the responsibility to hold the by-election in accordance with the election ordinance,” he said in a statement.
Civic Party spokesman Kenneth Chan (陳家洛) said the law allows the government to hold by-elections any time it wants, but the party hoped they would be held by the end of May, before lawmakers break for summer.
Only half of Hong Kong's 60-seat legislature is directly elected from five geographical constituencies. The remaining “functional constituency” seats are largely selected by pro-China business elites. An 800-member election committee picked by Beijing chooses the city's chief executive.
Democrats are calling for universal suffrage in 2012, but the Chinese government has said the territory's chief executive can only be directly elected at the earliest by 2017 and the legislature by 2020.
Two weeks ago, Beijing issued a statement expressing “grave concern” over the dissident lawmakers’ referendum plan and saying they were flouting Hong Kong's legal system, which is different to mainland China's.
Constitutional reform can only take place with the approval of two-thirds of Hong Kong's legislature, meaning the democrats, who hold 23 seats, are unlikely to be able to force their agenda on policymakers.
And the democrats’ latest campaign faces a potential setback after the Liberal Party, a major pro-Beijing faction, announced last week it would not take part in any by-elections.
Another pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, indicated that it would follow the Liberals' lead.
Political observers say China is leaning on the pro-Beijing parties to shun the by-elections.
“By pressuring those political parties to boycott the by-election, Beijing hopes to trivialize the event and discourage people from casting their vote,” said Ivan Choy, a political analyst at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
An opinion poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong between Jan. 11 and Jan. 13 said that just 24 percent of the 1,008 respondents supported universal suffrage, compared with 50 percent who said they were against.
But thousands of people took to the streets on New Year's Day to call for full democracy in the territory, as well as human rights in China.
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