2010/06/25

Protests as Hong Kong adopts democratic reforms

HONG KONG, June 25, 2010 (AFP) - Hong Kong on Friday agreed a political shake-up that stops far short of universal suffrage for China's freewheeling financial hub, provoking cries of betrayal from pro-democracy hardliners.

Lawmakers voted to add 10 directly elected seats to the semi-autonomous territory's legislature in 2012, after a bitter split emerged between moderates and hardliners in the pro-democracy camp.

Scores of police officers surrounded the British colonial-era Legislative Council building behind layers of barricades, after vuvuzela-blaring pro-democracy activists tried to break through a cordon on Thursday.

Radicals condemned moderates in the Democratic Party, whose votes allowed the government's reforms to pass, claiming they had betrayed Hong Kong by giving up on a fight for one person, one vote by 2012.

"Today is the darkest day for the democratic development of Hong Kong," Albert Chan of the League of Social Democrats shouted in the chamber.

The League's leader Raymond Wong said history would "hold the Democratic Party accountable".

"The party no longer has a place in the pro-democracy camp. We are now on separate paths," he told reporters.

Several democracy campaigners who staged a sit-down protest on a main road in the central business district were carried away by police.

The creation of the 10 new seats was agreed a day after the legislature voted to enlarge the Beijing-backed election committee that chooses Hong Kong's chief executive, from 800 to 1,200 members in 2012.

The reforms will still leave the legislature dominated by pro-Beijing business elites, which are not subject to a popular vote, while the chief executive will remain reliant on backing from the central government.

The former British colony, which was returned to China in 1997, has a legal and administrative system independent of mainland China's but its constitutional development falls under Beijing's control.

Pro-democracy radicals have been growing increasingly militant in recent years, frustrated at what they see as the compliance of Hong Kong's government to the reluctance of communist Beijing to embrace faster change.

But Stephen Lam, secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, said lawmakers should be content with gradual change. That echoed the Democratic Party, which backed the reforms after a deal with Beijing.

"To arrive at where we are today is not easy," Lam told lawmakers, reminding them of their vote against a similar political reform plan introduced by the government in 2005, which triggered a constitutional crisis.

Only half of the current 60-seat legislature is popularly elected, with the rest picked by "functional constituencies" based on professions and mainly comprising pro-Beijing factions.

Observers believe the split in the democracy camp could usher in a new era of party politics for Hong Kong, with a major realignment of factions that could herald a more combative tone and possibly foment social unrest.

Any instability would be anathema to China's communist government, which says that at the earliest universal suffrage could be introduced to elect Hong Kong's chief executive in 2017 and for the legislature in 2020.

The Democratic Party -- the city's oldest opposition group -- urged the rest of the democracy camp to be patient.

"Time will tell that we are trustworthy and that we are truly dedicated to our common goal of obtaining universal suffrage for Hong Kong," party chairman Albert Ho told a news conference.

"It is indeed the case that the vast majority of our voters want to see some real progress, and do not want to stay mired in a pool of stagnant water. We cannot just talk about our ideals forever," he said.