HONG KONG - The Hong Kong government has issued a document formally asking Beijing to allow election reform. The paper, submitted on Tuesday to the Standing Committee of China's legislature, comes after months of intense debate over Beijing's role in the territory's future elections.
The report is the first formal step towards universal suffrage in the former British colony, and the outcome of five-months of government consultation with organizations and individuals in Hong Kong.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the government had received 124,700 written submissions, and that the reform will be an important milestone of the democratic development of Hong Kong's political system.
"Today is a historic moment in the constitutional development of Hong Kong," he said. "We will be able to take a big stride forward in the democratic development of Hong Kong, if we are willing to forge consensus as much as we can, and leave behind our differences in a rational and pragmatic manner on the remaining work."
Hong Kong's Chief Executive is now elected by a committee of 1,200 people, largely representing Beijing's interests.
Responding to the announcement, Hong Kong Civil Rights Front leader Johnson Yeung said Hong Kongers will have to rely on themselves to push for reform.
"If we want to fight, if we want to occupy, we should not wait for the government’s second round of political consultation," he said. "Otherwise our action would only serve to overturn the consultation. If we want real suffrage, we should take action in civil disobedience between the end of August and the second round of political consultation."
The reform plan, which will ultimately need approval from Beijing, is intended to give the former British colony a “one man, one vote” type of democracy, a unique set up for a region under Chinese rule.
But the details on who will be eligible for top office has created a split between democrats in Hong Kong and the central authorities in Beijing.
Tuesday's document is unlikely to calm the spirits.
It presented two controversial topics as mainstream opinions, including the provision that candidates to the Chief Executive job should love the country and be patriotic, and that they should be picked by a nominating committee and not more directly by the public.
Activists have been calling for a legal framework that allows more independence in picking candidates and such a plan was endorsed by 800,000 Hong Kongers in an unofficial referendum earlier this year.
The paper mentions such a set up - called civic nomination - and says there are still considerable views that it should be included in the plan.
“Civil nomination is described in several points, but always as a kind of alternative view to something that is presented first, typically as a more mainstream view. So it's there, but one wouldn't guess that they [the Hong Kong government] plan to embrace it in any way," explains Michael Davis, a professor of law at Hong Kong University.
Beijing has repeatedly ruled out the possibility of direct selection of candidates by the public, insisting that such a provision does not comply with Hong Kong's constitution, or Basic Law.
In a recent white paper that enraged the territory's pro-democracy camp, Beijing stated that any autonomy the city enjoys is dependent upon authorization by the central government.
Such statements have fueled public mistrust of Beijing's intentions, says Davis, and run counter to the Sino-British agreement which granted Hong Kong with a “high degree of autonomy.”
“If the treaty now is completely dismissed as almost of no significance, but rather all of this takes its authority from China and China can interpret it any way it wants, and even indicates in there that China is the guardian of the rule of law, it's a very different picture than what was presented to Hong Kong when the Sino-British joint declaration was sold to Hong Kong,” said Davis.
Beijing is set to review the electoral reform plan in August and send it back to Hong Kong for comments.
Occupy Central, the group behind the unofficial referendum that endorsed civic nomination, has threatened to occupy downtown Hong Kong should the reform plan that is ultimately adopted fails to meet international standards of democracy.