WASHINGTON - Hong Kong appears to be heading toward more political confrontation in the coming weeks, as pro-democracy activists prepare to hold an unofficial referendum to pressure the territory's government and its superiors in Beijing to accept greater public involvement in the election process.
In recent days, pro-democracy lawmakers have begun handing out flyers to promote the referendum, which will ask residents whether they believe the public should be able to nominate candidates for the city's next leadership election in 2017. It is the first election in which Beijing has said the chief executive post can be filled by universal suffrage, with all citizens entitled to vote.
Since Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the autonomous territory's chief executive has been elected only by a committee representing various industries and social groups that tend to be loyal to the establishment and Beijing.
The chief executive election committee had 1,200 members in 2012, when it nominated several candidates and elected one of them - the city's current pro-Beijing leader, Leung Chun-ying. The committee's members also were elected the previous year, but only about 7 percent of Hong Kong's electorate had the right to vote for them.
Hong Kong Leader Defiant
Leung has taken a tough stance toward the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement organizing the referendum. In remarks to lawmakers last week, he said he will not be pressured into implementing electoral reforms that do not comply with Hong Kong's constitution, or Basic Law.
That document states that any candidates running for chief executive under universal suffrage must be nominated by a "broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures."
Occupy Central activists say the June 20-22 unofficial referendum will enable citizens to express support for several reform proposals in which registered voters and political parties also play a role in nominating candidates.
But Hong Kong officials and the Chinese central government have said a public nomination system would violate the Basic Law by usurping the nominating committee's powers. They also say chief executive candidates must be "patriotic" toward the Chinese motherland, a requirement not explicitly stated in the constitution.
Leung plans to define the nominating committee's composition and procedures in a reform bill that must win approval from two-thirds of the city's 70 legislators by March 2015, the deadline for preparations to begin for the March 2017 election.
Activists Threaten Escalation
The Occupy Central movement has warned that if the government bill fails to authorize public nomination of candidates, it will stage a peaceful sit-in to "occupy" Hong Kong's central business district until its demands are met. Leung and Chinese officials have responded by warning that such a protest would be illegal and authorities would take action against those involved.
Civic Party lawmaker Alan Leong, who leads one of Hong Kong's two main pro-democracy factions, said Occupy Central insists on public nomination because it fears Chinese and Hong Kong officials will collude to ensure that the nominating committee blocks candidates deemed insufficiently patriotic toward Beijing.
"It is important for China's rulers to realize that the great majority of Hong Kong people are pragmatic, practical, and love their country and Hong Kong," said Leung, speaking to VOA by phone. "Beijing needs to trust the choices of Hong Kong people, because without that trust, it will be very difficult to build a good rapport between Beijing and Hong Kong."
Leong also said any moves by the nominating committee to block candidates on a Beijing "blacklist" would mean that the chief executive elected in 2017 would lack "badly needed" political legitimacy to make Hong Kong more governable.
He said a big turnout in the Occupy Central referendum would give pro-democracy lawmakers a stronger mandate to press for public nomination in negotiations with Chinese officials.
Appealing for Compromise
In another interview, the head of Hong Kong's pro-establishment Liberal Party lawmaker James Tien, said Beijing and Occupy Central both should "give and take a little."
Tien said a compromise would enable the Legislative Council to approve reforms that advance Hong Kong's democratic development and avoid a scenario in which a reform bill fails and the 1,200-member election committee has to choose the chief executive once again.
A government bill likely would receive the support of the Legislative Council's 43 pro-Beijing and pro-establishment lawmakers, meaning it would need another five votes from the 27 pan-democrats to reach two-thirds approval.
Tien said the pan-democratic camp should consider making the bigger sacrifice to resolve the dispute.
"Maybe the pan-democrats can back off a little bit," he said. "At least let the first election in 2017 go ahead without a pan-democratic candidate. When the next election comes up in 2022, we can improve the system and say ‘ok, after five years everything has gone smoothly,’ and the pan-democrats can enter as well."
Democratic Party lawmaker Emily Lau, who leads Hong Kong's other main pro-democracy faction, told VOA she completely rejects that idea.
"It would be very difficult for my party to go out and tell people that now we have a democratic election, but we will give up the right to stand [for chief executive] and persuade other pro-democracy groups not to stand as well, so as to set Beijing’s mind at ease," Lau said. "If we did that, my party would be finished."
Next Stage of Dispute?
Without a compromise, an "Occupy" protest could materialize later this year on the streets of the central business district, where many local and foreign financial institutions are based. That prospect concerns the Liberal Party's Tien.
"The protests probably would be broadcast worldwide on TV networks like CNN and BBC, and have a negative impact on Hong Kong's image," he said.
Lau said the government can avert the civil disobedience campaign by drafting a reform bill that gives voters a "free and fair" choice in the 2017 election.
"We hope that we don't have to resort to occupying Central and having people arrested. But if we are forced, I don't think we will shy from that," she said.
Michael Lipin's interview with James Tien
Michael Lipin's interview with Emily Lau
Michael Lipin's interview with Alan Leong