Hong Kong voted yesterday in legislative elections seen as a test for the pro-Beijing government, after it was forced to scrap mandatory Chinese patriotism classes in the face of escalating protests.
The government has been besieged by protests since it took office in July with support from Beijing, and a strong vote for democratic parties will be seen as a rejection of China’s growing influence over the former British colony.
Tens of thousands of student-led demonstrators surrounded the executive building for a second straight night on Saturday, calling for the withdrawal of the unpopular plan to introduce Chinese patriotism classes into schools.
In an election-eve policy reversal, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英), dropped the 2016 deadline for the classes to be introduced and said they would no longer be mandatory.
“The schools are given the authority to decide when and how they would like to introduce the moral and national education,” he told a press conference late on Saturday, blaming the previous government for the policy.
The protests ended yesterday, but analysts said anger at the government’s handling of the education row would not dissipate so quickly and could still boost turnout for the pro-democracy camp.
Voting began at 7:30am and was to continue until 10:30pm, with results not expected until today.
The new legislature could pave the way for universal suffrage as promised by Beijing in 2017 for the job of chief executive, and by 2020 for the parliament.
Forty of the 70 seats — expanded from 60 in the outgoing assembly — will be directly elected, the first time that more than half of the seats in the Asian financial center have been decided by popular vote.
The remainder are chosen by relatively small “functional constituencies” of electors grouped along economic and professional lines, including wealthy business leaders with strong financial ties to China.
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam (譚志源) said the expanded number of seats in the assembly “greatly enhanced” democracy, but the democracy camp and many independent analysts disagree.
“The impact will be very, very limited. The opposition will still remain in the minority, it still has no chance in securing a majority,” City University of Hong Kong analyst Joseph Cheng (鄭宇碩) said.
Besides the protests over education policy, tensions have been brewing over corruption, the yawning gap between rich and poor, soaring property prices and the strains of coping with an influx of millions of Chinese tourists.
Surveys show dissatisfaction with Chinese rule is rising, especially among the young, while satisfaction with the Chinese Communist Party’s performance in governing China is at its lowest point since the 1997 handover from Britain.
Pro-democracy are hoping to win the minimum 24 seats they need to retain a veto over constitutional amendments required for the introduction of universal suffrage.
They fear Beijing will try to force through a sanitized version of universal suffrage that gives the central authorities power to screen candidates. Beijing-backed newspaper Wen Wei Po described the pro-democracy camp as people who “throw bananas,” an apparent reference to the protests and the noisy antics of some radical lawmakers.
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