It took the British more than 140 years of rule before belatedly granting the citizens of Hong Kong some form of democracy — and even then it appeared a half-hearted effort, limited in scope and hurriedly pushed through as a handover to China loomed.
Now, nearly 20 years after ceding the territory back to Beijing, MPs in London are looking again at the issue of electoral reform in Hong Kong, and few there appear overly enamored by the once colonial ruler’s renewed interest.
In a strongly worded response to plans by an influential U.K. parliamentary body to inquire into Hong Kong’s progress toward democracy, Beijing on Wednesday condemned British “interference” in its affairs. Meanwhile, pro-democracy activists on the island have another concern. Advocates for totally autonomous elections say the move in London is only hurting attempts to demand greater rights from Beijing.
The move comes amid tensions and protests in Hong Kong over the direction of and limits on electoral reforms.
The Chinese government’s National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee granted the special administrative region the right to choose its next chief executive — the top governing official in the territory — by popular vote. Previously the position was selected by an election committee.
But there is a catch: The nominees must first be selected by a Beijing-based committee.
Some Hong Kong–based democracy activists say this will give Beijing the power to select only pro–Chinese government candidates, shirking its obligation under the terms of London’s 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Beijing to maintain sweeping democratic freedoms for the territory.
Nonetheless, Beijing has lauded the move, specifically comparing it to the lack of electoral choice Hong Kongers faced under the British.
“If specific methods for the universal suffrage are adopted by the Hong Kong legislative council and finally approved by the NPC Standing Committee, more than 5 million eligible electors in Hong Kong will for the first time enjoy the right to directly vote for their chief executive, which residents in Hong Kong did not have the chance to do during the 156 years under British rule,” the Chinese Embassy in Washington said in a statement to Al Jazeera.
“Just as U.S. presidents should affirm their loyalty to their country and promise to defend the Constitution while sworn in, according to NPC’s decision, the chief-executive-elect has to be a person who loves China and loves” Hong Kong.
But on the island, not everyone loves China’s attempts at limited reform.
Thousands of Hong Kongers affiliated with the Occupy Central movement have threatened to shut down business as usual in the East Asian financial hub in protest over Beijing’s decision.
And it is that unrest that has seemingly spurred the UK’s Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to carry out an investigation into whether China has breached its contract to preserve Hong Kong suffrage, prompting a fit of pique in Beijing.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an email to Al Jazeera that “Hong Kong is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong will direct its own electoral changes. This is a Chinese internal affair, and [Beijing] will not accept foreign interference.”
“China has expressed its stern stance on this issue to our British counterparts,” it continued.
Richard Ottaway, head of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, and representatives for the House of Commons did not respond to interview requests by time of publication.
Occupy organizers say Britain’s intervention may only hurt their chances to engage in a dialogue on rights with Beijing — a socialist administration that often decries colonial and neocolonial Western foreign policy.
“Whether our movement is successful will depend on Hong Kong people,” said Chan Kin-man, a sociologist specializing in democracy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and one of the organizers of the protests against Beijing’s decision.
“Indeed, the Chinese government has smeared our movement as supported by a foreign force in order to support the Communist regime's rise in Hong Kong,” Chan said, adding that Beijing “will make use of this investigation to further smear our movement, but we didn’t have much expectations of this investigation.”
Chan says he supported the 1997 return of Hong Kong to China because of terms that guaranteed freedoms previously denied Hong Kongers under the British. What limited reforms there were in years leading up to the handover were the result of the British wanting to be seen as a “civilized” nation, Chan said.
And attempts now by a group of MPs to advance the aims of democracy advocates may be misplaced.
Chan said Occupy has yet to make a formal decision on Britain’s attempts at intervention. But hopes within the group aren’t high that it will help much.
“We appreciate this effort, but don’t have much expectations on it.”