As paradoxical as it may sound, pro-democracy activists insist they were right to oppose a direct popular vote — since voters would have had to choose among only a few candidates approved by Beijing.

Share story

HONG KONG — For the fifth time in the two decades since this former British colony’s return to Chinese rule, Hong Kong’s next chief executive will be selected Sunday by a committee stacked with supporters of the Chinese government rather than by a free election.

With a victory by Beijing’s favored candidate all but a foregone conclusion, some are raising a difficult question: Did pro-democracy demonstrators miscalculate when they rallied against Beijing’s offer of a popular vote three years ago?

As paradoxical as it may sound, the pro-democracy activists insist they were right to oppose Beijing’s offer to allow for a direct popular vote for the chief executive, Hong Kong’s top official, saying it would have been a sham anyway, with a pool of candidates approved by Beijing.

The committee’s makeup

Hong Kong’s 3.8 million registered voters have no say in the vote for their chief executive. The election committee that will choose Hong Kong’s next leader is supposed to be “broadly representative,” but has only 1,194 members. The committee represents 38 industry and trade groups, including importers and exporters, dealers in Chinese medicine and representatives from agriculture and fisheries. Pro-Beijing tycoons like billionaire Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest person, are prominent members, although Hong Kong lawmakers, local councilors and delegates to China’s Parliament also have votes.

The Associated Press

“The proposal would have given the election false legitimacy, and the chief executive a false mandate,” said Nathan Law, one of the student leaders of the protest movement, which paralyzed parts of Hong Kong for nearly three months. “There’s absolutely no regret.”

Instead of accepting a new election method with just a veneer of democracy, pro-democracy politicians have said they would rather keep the status quo that has existed since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997: with the chief executive selected by a privileged minority.

Since the 2014 protests, China has tightened its grip on Hong Kong. In an extraordinary move in November, Beijing intervened in a Hong Kong court case to block the seating of two politicians in the Legislature after they pledged allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation” during their swearing-in ceremony and inserted an anti-China snub into their oaths of office.

In January, a Chinese-born billionaire was taken from his apartment at a luxury hotel in Hong Kong and spirited into police custody in mainland China, even though mainland law-enforcement officials are barred from operating across the border. The case brought to mind the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers last year, with both incidents raising fears about the erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong.

As pro-democracy activists dismiss Sunday’s selection process as rigged, they are lamenting Beijing’s apparent snub of John Tsang, one of three candidates in Sunday’s voting. A former financial secretary bearing the nickname Mr. Pringles for his resemblance to the brand’s cartoon mascot, Tsang is a rare pro-establishment figure who has both the blessing of pro-democracy parties and a good chunk of the general population, as major opinion polls suggest.

Despite these qualities, Chinese leaders have reportedly expressed their support for Carrie Lam, a former No. 2 official in Hong Kong’s government who tried and failed to push through the proposal for direct elections that was championed by Beijing.

Lam is loyal to the Chinese Communist Party, “but more skillful” politically than Leung Chun-ying, the unpopular incumbent chief executive, said Chan Kin-man, an associate professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who helped organize the 2014 protests. Leung was the city’s first chief executive to not seek a second five-year tenure.

“Beijing officials have obviously decided they no longer need to keep up appearances about nonintervention in Hong Kong affairs,” wrote Suzanne Pepper, a scholar of Hong Kong elections. “Past suspicions in this regard were typically met with bland denials. But at least pretensions were maintained.”

The changes proposed by Beijing in 2014 were meant in part to honor its commitment to allow Hong Kong’s leader to be elected by universal suffrage after it regained sovereignty over the territory in 1997. But the proposal contained strict limits: While millions of people would have been able to vote, they could have chosen from among only two or three candidates selected by the same committee that now both nominates and selects the chief executive.