Hong Kong's democracy debate

  • 7 October 2014
  • From the section China
This picture taken on 23 August 2014 shows a general view of commercial and residential buildings near Hong Kong's Victoria harbour.
Hong Kong has its own legal system, with rights such as freedom of assembly and free speech protected

Hong Kong saw prolonged street protests after Beijing ruled out open nominations for the election of Hong Kong's leader in 2017. The BBC takes a look at the controversy.

What is Hong Kong's relationship with China?

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back to China in 1997 following a 1984 agreement between China and Britain.

China agreed to govern Hong Kong under the principle of "one country, two systems", where the city would enjoy "a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs" for 50 years.

As a result, Hong Kong has its own legal system, and rights including freedom of assembly and free speech are protected.

Its leader, the chief executive, is currently elected by a 1,200-member election committee. A majority of the representatives are viewed as pro-Beijing.

Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, says that "the ultimate aim" is to elect the chief executive "by universal suffrage".

line break

So what has changed?

The Chinese government has promised direct elections for chief executive by 2017.

But in August 2014 China's top legislative committee ruled that voters will only have a choice from a list of two or three candidates selected by a nominating committee.

This committee would be formed "in accordance with" Hong Kong's largely pro-Beijing election committee. Any candidate would have to secure the support of more than 50% of the nominating committee before being able to run in the election.

Democracy activists believe China will use the committee to screen out candidates it disapproves of.

line break
Pro-democracy supporters raise banners that read: "Occupy Central with Love and Peace," during a kickoff ceremony of an referendum on democracy under a plan of Occupy-style protest in Hong Kong, on 20 June 2014.
Occupy Central is one of several pro-democracy groups pushing for electoral reform in Hong Kong

Who is leading the debate?

Two main groups of pro-democracy activists have emerged.

One is Occupy Central, led by academic Benny Tai, while the other comprises student groups such as the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism.

Occupy Central organised an unofficial referendum on political reform in June 2014. About one in five Hong Kong residents turned out for it.

Shortly after the vote, tens of thousands of protesters took part in what observers say was Hong Kong's largest pro-democracy rally in a decade on 1 July, which marked the day Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997.

Since then, the student groups have become a key player as well.

In late September they led a week of class boycotts, which later grew into full-scale city-wide protests when Occupy Central decided to join in.

Notable student activists include Alex Chow and Lester Shum from the Hong Kong Federation of Students, and Joshua Wong of Scholarism.

The students later threatened to escalate the street protests by occupying government buildings if chief executive CY Leung did not resign. This prompted an offer of talks with high-level Hong Kong government officials, which the students accepted.

line break
People hold the Chinese and Hong Kong flags as they take part in a pro-government rally in Hong Kong on 17 August 2014
A rally by pro-Beijing groups on 17 August drew thousands

Does everyone want full democracy?

No. Pro-Beijing groups, such as Silent Majority for Hong Kong and Caring Hong Kong Power have emerged, criticising pro-democracy activists for "endangering" the city.

They argue that continued civil disobedience and opposition to Beijing would only damage the city's reputation and economy, as well as its relationship with China.

These groups have organised several protests against Occupy Central and the pro-democracy movement. Its biggest event, held on 17 August, was attended by thousands.

The rally was unusual as large-scale pro-government protests are rare in Hong Kong. Several questioned its legitimacy, especially when reports emerged that some marchers were paid to attend.

Business leaders, who favour stability, have also opposed pro-democracy protests, and a recent survey by Hong Kong University showed more Hong Kong residents viewed China positively than negatively.

Pro-China legislators have argued that Beijing's proposals are an improvement on the current system.

During the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in September and October 2014, several groups turned up at protest sites to oppose their occupation of major streets. Police arrested a number involved with scuffles with pro-democracy protesters, and said that among those arrested were people with links to triad gangs.

line break
Pro-democracy protesters attend a rally to protest the violence seen in Mong Kok, in Hong Kong, China, \4 October 2014
China has denounced the street protests that took place in early October as "illegal"

What does China say?

China has consistently denounced pro-democracy protests taking place in Hong Kong, and has called the latest street occupations in September and October 2014 "illegal".

Li Fei, the deputy secretary general of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, said that openly nominating candidates would create a "chaotic society" and that any chief executive must "love the country".

In a June 2014 white paper, China said some had a "confused and lopsided" understanding of the "one country, two systems" model.

China has constantly stressed that unity is the way forward for the country, as it grapples with demands for greater autonomy in Xinjiang and Tibet.

line break
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying speaks to Hong Kong journalists at a press conference during the APEC Summit on 6 October 2013 in Nusa Dua, Indonesia.
The current chief executive of Hong Kong is Leung Chun-ying

What is the Hong Kong government's stand?

Chief Executive CY Leung hailed Beijing's decision on election candidacy as a "major step forward in the development of Hong Kong's society".

His government had said June's unofficial referendum had no legal standing.

It also welcomed the Chinese government's white paper, saying that Hong Kong has benefited from the "one country, two systems" model.

In a report submitted to Beijing in July, Mr Leung said that mainstream Hong Kong society agreed with Beijing on how electoral reform should proceed.

The report was based on public consultation with the Hong Kong public. But it drew fire from pro-democracy activists who said Mr Leung had misrepresented public opinion.

The government must still discuss Beijing's election ruling and formulate a bill to be passed by Hong Kong's legislature.

More on this story