Hong Kong protests: Did China go back on its promises?

By Juliana Liu
Hong Kong correspondent, BBC News

image copyrightAFP

The young demonstrators occupying four areas of Hong Kong frequently chant "Give me real universal suffrage" in rousing unison.

Wearing black T-shirts and yellow ribbons, the symbols of the city's democracy movement, they have taken to the streets in response to a decision by the senior Chinese leadership to set out clear limits on who can run for the position of chief executive, Hong Kong's top leader, in 2017.

The rules make it virtually impossible for anyone not trusted by the Chinese government to stand for election.

As a result, the protesters accuse Beijing of reneging on decades of vows to give Hong Kong people genuine democracy.

But although there is widespread anger that Beijing may have violated the spirit of the agreements it has made, there is intense debate over whether it has violated the letter of the law.

'No right to nominate'

Alan Hoo, a top barrister and expert on the Basic Law, the city constitution, told BBC News that China had not broken any promises.

"I think that its position is grossly misunderstood," he says. "Firstly, it's not a promise. It is a legal obligation, a constitutional obligation that they put in the Basic Law."

image copyrightAFP
image captionA woman at a rally in Sweden expresses a view held by the tens of thousands on the streets on Hong Kong

Mr Hoo, chairman of the Basic Law Institute and a well-known pro-Beijing figure in Hong Kong, is referring to Article 45 of the Basic Law, which refers specifically to one person, one vote.

"The ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures," it says.

It is Beijing's conservative interpretation of that line that has brought tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets.

According to the rules announced at the end of August by the Standing Committee of China's parliament, candidates for chief executive must gain the support of a majority of a nominating committee.

There can be only two to three candidates.

CY Leung, the current chief executive, has further clarified that the nominating committee will be modelled on the existing election committee - composed of members largely loyal to Beijing - that selected him in 2012.

image copyrightAP
image captionCY Leung enjoys the full support of the government in Beijing and is unlikely to lose it

"The people on the streets are asking for the right to nominate," says Mr Hoo. "Universal suffrage, under the international covenant, means that there are express rights to elect or be elected. There is no express right to nominate."

This argument is disputed by those, including the former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, who accuse the Chinese government of refusing to live up to its commitments by hiding behind flexible legal language.

Years before the then British colony was returned to China in 1997, a number of senior Chinese leaders had assured the Hong Kong public that one person, one vote would be in its future.

In a comment in the official People's Daily newspaper in March 1993, Lu Ping, then the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said: "How Hong Kong develops its democracy in the future is entirely within the autonomy of Hong Kong."

And in a letter written in May 1984, then Premier Zhao Ziyang promised university students in Hong Kong that protecting the people's democratic rights was a basic principle of the government.

He assured them that there would, someday, be democratic rule in Hong Kong.

But just five years later, Mr Zhao, a relatively liberal-minded leader, would be punished for siding with the student demonstrators on Tiananmen Square, spending the rest of his life under house arrest.

Emily Lau, chairwoman of the city's Democratic Party, believes those previous promises should still be honoured.

image captionEmily Lau: North Koreans get a vote but that doesn't mean it's democracy

She says universal suffrage should mean voters be given a choice of candidates from different political persuasions.

North Korea and Iran also have one person, one vote, she says, but a sharply restricted list of candidates.

"Are we going to be like Iran or North Korea?" she asks. "No, we are Hong Kong. We want to go by international standards and give voters a genuine choice."

The demonstrators say that, for the crowds to recede, the Hong Kong and Chinese governments must listen to the voices of the people.

They argue that the general public are, at heart, pragmatic people who understand they are ultimately Chinese citizens.

Ms Lau adds: "Whoever is elected by the Hong Kong people to be chief executive, I am quite sure that person would love China and love Hong Kong and would be able to defend the interest of the Hong Kong people and would also be able to work with Beijing.

"Such people exist. Just give us some space, so that they can be nominated. And allow the people to elect."

Hong Kong democracy timeline

  • 1997: UK gives Hong Kong back to China under a 1984 agreement giving it "a high degree of autonomy" for 50 years
  • 2004: China says it must approve any changes to Hong Kong's election laws
  • June-July 2014: Pro-democracy activists hold an unofficial referendum on political reform. Both sides hold large rallies
  • 31 August 2014: China says it will allow direct elections in 2017 but will pre-approve candidates
  • 22 September 2014: Student groups launch a week-long boycott of classes
  • 28 September 2014: Occupy Central and student protests join forces and take over central Hong Kong
  • 2017: Direct elections for chief executive due to take place
  • 2047: Expiry of current agreements

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