China Defends Democracy Plan for Hong Kong as Protests Break Out

Sep 01, 2014 12:00 pm ET

Sept. 2 (Bloomberg) -- China defended a plan to place limits on democracy in Hong Kong, calling on opposition lawmakers to get behind its ruling or risk losing the chance to elect the city’s next leader by popular vote.

Activists should overcome their “prejudices” and see that China’s proposal is the most concrete step toward implementing the election, Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of the National People’s Congress, said in Hong Kong yesterday. Earlier, police used pepper spray to repel protesters who sought to break through barricades as Li presented the plan to a gathering of lawmakers and business leaders.

China’s demand to vet candidates for the 2017 election angered pro-democracy lawmakers and activist group Occupy Central With Love and Peace, which said it will organize protests culminating in the mass occupation of Hong Kong’s central business district. While calling such activities illegal, Li also sought to pacify dissenters by saying that the electoral rules can be amended in the future.

“China has the biggest sincerity in reaching a consensus,” Li told reporters at a briefing yesterday. “The door for dialogue is always open.”

Li has met with a mixed reception in Hong Kong, with opposition lawmakers heckling him before they were escorted out of the hall where he was speaking.

Police Presence

In a sign of heightened tensions, police patrolled the streets of the business district yesterday and barricades were erected outside buildings including the Cheung Kong Center, owned by Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing. Scaffolding was erected in the space beneath HSBC Holdings Plc’s Asian headquarters, with a sign explaining that an open air heritage space was being constructed to celebrate the bank’s 150th anniversary next year.

So far, the unrest hasn’t affected confidence in the city’s stock market. Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index was little changed yesterday, and has gained 6.2 percent this year.

The 2017 election will be the first to be decided by universal suffrage in Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 with the promise of a high degree of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” formula championed by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

China ruled Aug. 31 that candidates for the poll must be approved by a majority of a 1,200-member committee, which opposition lawmakers have criticized as dominated by a pro- Beijing business and political elite. The number of contenders will be limited to two or three.

‘Bird Cage’

NPC official Li’s offer isn’t meaningful, according to Emily Lau, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, which has vowed to take part in Occupy Central.

“What’s the point of dialogue if it’s only one way?” Lau said. “China has decided everything.”

Occupy Central said it will organize protests that will involve at least 10,000 people. Students will skip school from mid-September in protest, said Alex Chow, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Federation of Students.

“I believe most of the people in Hong Kong oppose Occupy Central,” Feng Wei, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, China’s cabinet, said yesterday at the same press conference. “Hong Kong is a free economy based on the flow of funds, human resources and information. The key to these flows is to ensure stability and order in society.”

Occupy Central has divided the city with tycoons, business groups and officials warning protests could turn violent and tarnish the city’s reputation as a global financial center. A July 1 pro-democracy rally drew as many as 172,000, while an anti-Occupy Central march on Aug. 17 attracted about 88,000, according to estimates by the University of Hong Kong.

Economic Risks

Pro-Beijing groups also rallied yesterday, with about 200 people marching outside the Hong Kong government headquarters in support of the China ruling.

“Young people don’t know Hong Kong’s history,” Leung Chi Kong, 60, community worker, said at the rally. “The prosperity of Hong Kong is the result of our struggles in the 1980s and 1990s. Occupy Central will ruin Hong Kong’s economy.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will hold a second public consultation before introducing a bill on the electoral reforms to the city’s legislature early next year.

He needs two-thirds of the 70-member legislature, of which 27 belong to opposition parties, to pass the bill. If the proposal is rejected, China has said it will scrap the 2017 election and Hong Kong will continue to have its leader picked by a 1,200-member election committee.

“I fear Hong Kong people will just view that they have to take extreme action,” Anson Chan, the city’s former No. 2 official said. “Too much is at stake. We are fighting for our children’s future.”