By James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Opposition lawmakers in Hong Kong are poised to resign en masse from the city legislature in a bid to trigger what amounts to a referendum on democracy and rekindle a battle with China on expanding democratic rights.
The resignations, if carried out, could be the most risky maneuver undertaken by Hong Kong’s liberal advocates of democratic rights in their tussle with Beijing since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Hong Kong enjoys a unique position as the most politically liberal city in China with a mini-constitution promising universal suffrage as an “ultimate aim”.
In reality, Beijing has been loathe to relax its grip over electoral freedoms and only agreed in 2007 to allow a direct vote for Hong Kong’s leader and legislature, starting in 2017.
The city’s leader is now chosen by a small pro-Beijing committee and only half its legislature is directly elected.
Debate over the resignation plan has caused discord within the “pan-democratic camp”, a grouping of parties and independents under the opposition umbrella that control 23 of 60 seats on the city’s legislative council.
“We are worried about splitting (the pan-democratic camp),” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a lawmaker and democracy advocate.
The Democratic Party, arguably Hong Kong’s most influential democratic force, voted against the resignation plan at the weekend, given the risks of losing seats in the legislature.
Backers of the plan range from radical activists to prominent figures like former top civil servant Anson Chan and veteran campaigner Martin Lee. They point to frustration at the slow pace of reforms and fears China may tailor a power-preserving version of democracy in 2017.
“There’s a feeling of helplessness among the people,” said lawmaker Alan Leong, whose Civic Party backs the plan. “This plan will make people feel the power they possess again, in not accepting the fate that Beijing is giving us.”
Under the plan, five lawmakers from each of Hong Kong’s five main districts would step down, with the resulting by-elections serving as a de facto referendum on democracy.
But without the Democratic Party’s support, the pan-democrats risk playing into Beijing’s hands and losing a one third veto bloc in the legislature.
“If they lose two seats there’s a possibility this will be quite devastating,” said Willy Lam, a commentator at the Chinese University in Hong Kong.
“It will show that more people are reconciled to the situation, to the inevitable, that Beijing is calling the shots.”
The release last month of a blueprint on altering electoral methods in 2012 disappointed many democracy advocates and failed to clarify the exact form of universal suffrage beyond 2017.
Democrats remain deeply skeptical that Beijing’s Communist leaders will allow direct elections without somehow making it difficult for opposition candidates to come to power.
Hong Kong’s No. 2 official, Henry Tang, and other pro-Beijing have fueled suspicions in recent weeks by saying that even with universal suffrage, groups crammed with pro-establishment allies that now make up half the legislature may not be abolished.