Hong Kong enjoys considerable political independence from Beijing. But with public calls for extended democracy growing ever-louder, chief executive Donald Tsang was compelled last November to seek the central government's authority for limited constitutional reforms in the former British colony. The chief executive's proposals have caused a schism among the city's democrats.
After a heated three-day debate, Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang and his government saw their constitutional reform package ratified Friday by the Legislative Council.
The package expands the committee that appoints the chief executive, and adds 10 seats to the city's 60-seat legislature before elections in 2012.
Half will be directly elected by the public. The remainder are so-called "functional constituency" seats, of which there are already 30 in the legislature, typically held by small, pro-Beijing interest groups.
The government intended that these new functional seats would be allocated to representatives chosen by only 405 members of the lower district council.
The pan-democratic opposition argued Tsang's proposals did not go far enough towards universal suffrage.
"The government should be leading the public [in] discussing a roadmap to phase out functional constituencies, said Audrey Eu, leader of the Civic Party. "Entrenching them, giving power to the minority to veto the majority ... this is disgraceful."
The reforms looked unlikely to be ratified by the required legislative majority. However, at the 11th hour, Beijing conceded to an amendment from the Democratic Party (DP).
It proposed the new functional constituencies be returned by Hong Kong's entire 3.8 million electorate under a system it calls "one man, two votes".
"Tsang's credibility is very low; there are signs of politics becoming more radicalized," said Emily Lau, a senior party legislator. "So maybe Beijing recognized that. I don't know. But this was an exceptional development."
With the DP helping the government pass the reforms, the city's democratic factions have dramatically fallen out after 20 years of comparative solidarity.
Legislator Andrew Cheng quit the Democratic Party over the deal. Leung Kwok-hung of the League of Social Democrats accused the party of treachery.
Praising the DP, Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang called the vote "historic." He said disputes and infighting have plagued Hong Kong for the past two decades. But, he said, it is now clear that consensus and reform are possible.
Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of government studies at Baptist University, believes time is needed for reconciliation. But he takes encouragement from Beijing's dealings with the DP.
"Beijing demonstrated it's more sophisticated than people thought," he said. "Now the task for Beijing is to reach out … to avoid continuing to alienate the section of society whose views have not been integrated in the compromise."
With the vote ratified, the chamber will re-convene within the next several months to work out a method for selecting members of the expanded legislature and chief executive election committee.