SHANGHAI -- For China the veto of its reform package came a few hours sooner than expected -- and certainly not in the way it anticipated, with many pro-Beijing legislators inadvertently leaving the chamber of Hong Kong’s legislature during the vote, and therefore missing their chance to cast their votes. But the result is no surprise -- over the past few weeks it had become increasingly clear that the Hong Kong and Chinese governments’ attempts to win over enough of Hong Kong’s pan-democrats to get the two-thirds majority needed to pass the reforms were doomed to fail.
Chinese officials responded to the vote with the line they have been promoting over recent weeks -- that rejecting the package amounted to missing a historical chance to introduce universal suffrage in Hong Kong, even if the three candidates for the 2017 election would have first had to be approved by a committee dominated by pro-Beijing loyalists.
“This is the result the central government doesn’t want to see,” said a statement from China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. “A few lawmakers voted down the package out of personal interest, and obstructed Hong Kong’s democratic progress; they should bear historical responsibility for this.”
In theory, the future, from Beijing’s point of view, is now clear: the Chinese and Hong Kong governments have argued all along that the electoral reform package they proposed was the only choice on offer -- and, as China’s legislature reiterated after the vote on Thursday, rejecting it would mean a return to the existing rules, under which the city’s chief executive will simply be chosen by a selection committee of 1,200 people, at least three-quarters of whom are seen as loyal to Beijing.
Yet questions may also be asked about China’s strategy. Hong Kong government and mainland officials spent months trying to convince the city’s citizens that the package on offer was a good start for the city’s democracy, but according even to their own polls they barely managed to convince more than half of the city’s electorate that this was the case -- and certainly not the two-thirds majority of the electorate, which would equate to the proportion of votes in the legislature needed to pass the reform package.
Their attempts to win over the city’s pan-democratic camp ended in even bigger failure, with not one of the 27 pan-democrats in the legislature supporting the package, despite much speculation that some would change sides. Some observers said that China’s apparent unwillingness to compromise on the package was its undoing: despite several months of public protest against the package after its unveiling by Beijing last August, the version presented to the Legislative Council was completely unchanged.
And while officials from both Hong Kong and Beijing did argue that, if the proposals were passed, there might be further democratic reforms in future, such as allowing a wider choice of candidates in future chief executive elections after 2017, they gave few specifics -- and without any concrete commitments, Democrats argued that these promises could not be trusted.
Experts noted that in 2010, the Chinese authorities had made some compromises on rules regarding the makeup of Hong Kong’s legislature, which led to an earlier reform package being passed. However Michael DeGolyer, of the Hong Kong Transition Project at the city’s Baptist University told International Business Times that while China's President Xi Jinping was in charge of Hong Kong affairs at that time in his former role of vice-president, in his current post he was “in a completely different situation,” and unable to make such a compromise -- particularly after the Umbrella Movement, which Beijing saw as a direct challenge to its authority.
The end result is that China will still get a chief executive it wants in 2017, though without the added legitimacy of a popular mandate for its chosen candidate. However it will face a city that has become increasingly polarized -- and one in which the pan-democratic camp says it is determined to continue to use the existing political system, including elections for district councils later this year and for the legislature next year, to promote its demands for what it calls “true universal suffrage.”
The chaotic vote on the long-awaited package also raises questions about the competence of those upon whom China relies in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy figures have argued that China gets its information about Hong Kong from people who are out of touch with the mood of the city.
And questions also remain about whether China will seek another term for C.Y. Leung, a divisive figure who democracy activists have repeatedly called on to resign. One of the government’s strategies to put pressure on the pan-democrats to accept the reform package was to warn them that, if they rejected it, “then CY Leung will get another term," as veteran democrat politician Martin Lee put it.
However, some in Hong Kong still believe that Beijing may seek a change in 2017 -- not least because Leung is vilified by many Hong Kong liberals, who blame him for the decision to let the police use tear gas and pepper spray against peaceful protesters last year, an act that brought more protesters onto the streets, and effectively began the Umbrella Movement, which left Hong Kong so divided.
Leung may now also be further tarnished by his association with the failure to pass the reform package. Yet it remains to be seen whether Beijing will dare to make a change at a time when it is already anxious about the situation in Hong Kong. The Global Times, for example, said before the vote on Thursday that if the package was rejected, the central government and “constructive forces” in Hong Kong would have to “clear up the mess” left behind.
What is clear is that the next two years, in the run-up to what will now be the selection of the next chief executive in 2017, may be nerve-wracking ones for both sides of Hong Kong’s political divide.