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Hong Kong's Struggle For Universal Suffrage

As the South China Morning Post reported today, Qiao Xiaoyang (喬曉陽), chairman of the Law Committee under the National People's Congress, said that discussions about a possible electoral reform in Hong Kong, which could lead to the establishment of a fully elected government, should not begin until the people of Hong Kong agree that those who confront the Beijing government cannot and shall not be allowed to govern the city (the Chinese text of Qiao Xiaoyang's speech can be found on the website of the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong S.A.R.).

Pro-democracy forces within Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), are pushing for a reform of the electoral system before the coming chief executive elections in 2017.

According to Qiao Xiaoyang, Beijing would be willing to begin consultations over the election reforms only if two prerequisites were fulfilled: first, the reforms would have to be in line with Hong Kong's Basic Law and "the relevant decision of the NPC Standing Committee"; second, those who confront the central government should not be eligible.

What Mr Qiao means by "confronting the central government" is not completely clear. In Mr Qiao's own wording, confrontation "does not refer to criticising Beijing. Criticism is allowed as long as it is for the good of the country." But the question is: who decides what is the good of the country? And what are the objective criteria to define it?

It can be assumed that the ambivalent choice of words veils a desire on Beijing's part to control Hong Kong and to not let democratic reforms turn the SAR into a Western-style parliamentary system. Although the central government has indeed respected the general lines of the "one country-two systems" principle, it seems determined to hold a firm grip on the civil society and group interests. Controlling Hong Kong would be much more difficult - if not altogether impossible - were Hong Kong to be ruled by a democratically elected parliament.

Meanwhile, an initiative launched by Dr Benny Tai Yiu-ting, professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, is alarming the pro-Beijing camp. The initiative, called "Occupy Central" will gather pro-democracy protesters in the centre of Hong Kong. Mr Tai has been quoted as saying he hopes that at least 10,000 people will take part in the demonstration. The protests will be conducted according to the principles of non-violence and civil disobedience. He said that all participants should be ready to accept imprisonment and retaliations, such as the loss of their professional qualifications, but that they "should not be worried about losing their lives."

Hong Kong's newspaper The Standard reported that organizers of the Occupy Central movement announced the launch of a website next week where people can sign up to demand universal suffrage. In May there will be a discussion to put forth concrete proposals for constitutional reforms.

The struggle of pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong should be understood against the backdrop of the history of the city both under British rule and after the handover to China in 1997. In one of my next posts I will briefly examine the evolution of Hong Kong's government and the relationship of the city with Britain and China.

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