Hong Kong residents braved the rain to protest Beijing’s decision to prescreen all future chief executive candidates. “Today may be the darkest day of Hong Kong’s democratic movement,” says Occupy Central’s Benny Tai. WSJ’s Ramy Inocencio reports.
HONG KONG—Hong Kong pro-democracy legislators heckled a top Chinese official on Monday as he sought to explain Beijing’s position on how the city should elect its leader, while police and demonstrators scuffled outside the venue.
Dozens of pro-democracy politicians disrupted remarks by Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, which decreed on Sunday that candidates for Hong Kong’s top leadership post must be approved by a committee heavily loyal to Beijing.
Legislators shouted slogans and held up signs saying “breach of promise” and “shameful.” A few of them were escorted out by the police, while some were dragged out.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung is dragged away by security guards as he protests against Li Fei, deputy general secretary of the National People’s Congress standing committee. Reuters
Police used pepper spray to restore order outside the venue, the AsiaWorld-Expo near Hong Kong’s airport, after some protesters tried to force barricades set up by police, according to a police spokesman.
A 21-year-old social worker identifying himself only as Kit said he and others in his pro-democracy group of activists were pepper-sprayed by police. “We are here to protest in a peaceful manner,” he said.
According to the police, the pepper spray was used after protesters consistently ignored police warnings to back down.
Sunday’s decree capped months of blunt reminders from Beijing of who is in charge in the former British colony and drew immediate ire from pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong. China’s government has for years been contending with a democracy campaign in Hong Kong, a major international financial center. It has counted on support from Hong Kong’s business elites and what local media have sometimes called a silent majority of locals more interested in steadily rising living standards than politics.
Pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong suffered a setback in their battle for universal suffrage. The WSJ’s Deborah Kan explains Beijing’s reluctance to give Hong Kong full democracy.
Democracy advocates, however, say Beijing has been infringing on the autonomy it guaranteed the city under the “one country, two systems” policy and have decried growing inequality and rising prices. They say universal suffrage—a one-person-one-vote system—would make the local government more responsive to the public.
Pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong have threatened a mass civil-disobedience campaign if they weren’t offered “genuine choice” in 2017 elections, and 23 legislators said Sunday they would veto Beijing’s proposal in the 70-seat Hong Kong legislature, where it needs two-third approval. By constituting a bloc of more than a third, the city’s 27 pro-democratic legislators hold effective veto power.
If the package is voted down, Mr. Li said, there will be no universal suffrage in 2017. If the proposal doesn’t pass, he said, “The governance of Hong Kong would turn more difficult. Many people in Hong Kong are very worried about it.”
Beijing’s position is that its proposal provides for the most democratic regime Hong Kong’s 7.2 million residents have ever enjoyed, after over a century after British colonial rule. Until the handover, Hong Kong was led by a governor—most often a career diplomat—appointed by the British government.
Since China took over in 1997, the city’s leader has been selected, around once every five years, by an election committee stacked with Beijing loyalists and members of the business community, in an arrangement to ensure that the winning candidate was palatable to China.
If legislators vote down the reform package, the selection method for the chief executive in 2017 will revert to the previous arrangements, Mr. Li said on Monday.
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Pro-democracy lawmakers, however, say that means little, arguing that the reforms announced Sunday are no more democratic than the committee-based selection process.
As for planned protests in Hong Kong in coming weeks, Mr. Li called one main organizer, activist group Occupy Central, illegal. “History and practical experience tells us that if some people want to instigate radical activities, and we succumb to that, that will only breed further illegal activities.”
As he spoke, protesters outside held up banners demanding “genuine elections,” and hurled insults at pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong, saying “their conscience has been devoured by dogs.”
Meanwhile, pro-Beijing supporters also in attendance waved Chinese flags and held signs saying, “Respect the decision of the National People’s Congress.” James Lee, 30, a secretary, said, “We want election, not confrontation.”
—Isabella Steger contributed to this article.