HONG KONG — Hong Kong voters go to the polls Sunday with their government mired in controversy, not least for the attempt this week to force “national education classes” on school children. With more seats in the legislature being decided on the basis of one-person-one-vote, the city’s pro-Beijing administration faces a challenging future as democrats look to make electoral gains before the anticipated introduction of universal suffrage in 2017.
Sunday’s election in Hong Kong will see over half of the legislature’s 70 seats returned by universal suffrage, the remainder by generally pro-Beijing groups.
The vote is likely to prove a defining moment for the city’s new leader, chief executive Leung Chun-ying.
“Things have been going terribly for him. He is now caught up in this national education controversy," said China analyst Frank Ching. "He canceled his trip to Russia for the APEC meeting, suggesting he realizes there is a crisis which he must stay to handle. But I do not see him doing anything.”
With anti-China sentiment growing in the former British colony, thousands of children and their parents remain camped outside government headquarters, some on a hunger strike.
They vow to remain until Leung cancels patriotism classes introduced in schools this week to promote loyalty and love for communist China.
The education stand-off is an embarrassment both for Leung and the central government in Beijing as it moves toward a leadership change.
President Hu Jintao, during a visit in July, appealed to residents to maintain unity with China as distrust of Beijing rose to levels not seen since British rule ended in 1997.
The popularity of the chief executive also has been harmed by increased corruption among politicians, as well as resentment over Hong Kong’s wealth gap, which is the widest in the developed world.
Leung’s position is not under direct threat at the ballot box - he entered office scarcely three months ago, appointed by a commission of less than 2,000 citizens, most of them pro-Beijing.
However, politics professor Michael DeGolyer of Hong Kong Baptist University says Leung's problems could boost support for pro-democracy groups.
“He has to work with these folks, who push very hard for more democracy," he said. "It is going to be extremely difficult, I think. It is pretty clear, for the first time, that we are not going to have [pro-Beijing factions win] a reliable majority.”
Under the terms of Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty, residents enjoy greater civil liberties than do mainland residents. And Hong Kong people have long fought for an expanded political franchise. After rolling protests, China’s National People’s Congress indicated in 2007 that full universal suffrage could be introduced in the city before the election of Leung’s successor in 2017.
But any chance of electing every legislator on the principle of one-person-one-vote could be blocked on Sunday if pro-Beijing parties manage to capture some of the one-third of seats held by democrats.
Margaret Ng is a legislator. “This proposal for 2017 will have to be put before the legislative council in the next couple of years, and that is why this election is crucial,” she said.
China remains vague on the details of the shift toward universal suffrage. However, as an interim step, Sunday’s election adds five new seats to the legislature. Lam Wai Man, a politics professor at Hong Kong University, explains that all voters can cast ballots for these so-called “super seats.”
“If you are elected, this really means you are one of the five most popular politicians in Hong Kong. These people will have greater chance to compete in future chief executive elections - if they are [ever decided by] universal suffrage,” said Lam.
While the victors could one day challenge the chief executive for his job, Mr. Leung is already fighting back, announcing a raft of initiatives in recent days to shore up support for himself and the pro-Beijing parties.
Among them is a deal with Beijing to slow the number of Chinese visitors to Hong Kong, and a plan to slow the rise in housing prices. Late Friday night, Leung also invited students and parents to join him in discussing the future of Chinese patriotism in Hong Kong schools.