Hong Kong (dpa) – Hong Kong lawmakers on Thursday successfully blocked a Beijing-backed election reform package that triggered the biggest unrest in years in the Chinese territory.
Legislators voted to reject the controversial plan that would allow the direct election of the city’s next leader only from a list of candidates pre-approved by Beijing.
Yet instead of relief the mood is sombre among the city’s pro-democracy activists, with groups divided on which next steps to take.
Thousands of protesters are expected to join an annual pro-democracy march on July 1, but another prolonged protest is unlikely after last year’s 79-day sit-in failed to draw any concessions from the central government.
The Federation of Students, a key leader of the Occupy protests, are now weakened after four universities quit the union in February.
The Thursday vote leaves in place the current system, where a 1,200-person committee of Hong Kong’s economic and political elite selects the next chief executive, rather than the estimated 5 million eligible voters in the city.
Democratic Party lawmaker Albert Ho said he hopes Beijing will engage in talks with Hong Kong lawmakers to reboot the election reform process.
“There is a lot of tension in Hong Kong arising from this political reform controversy and our society has never been so divided,” he said.
“It is imperative for all those concerned to sit together and try to find a way out of these political quandaries,” Ho told dpa.
But another pan-democrat – as pro-democracy parties and activists are known – Labour Party leader Lee Cheuk-yan, said such talks would be “meaningless” if Beijing refuses to change its approach.
“We are more than willing to engage with Beijing as long as they stop trying to dictate the terms and instead respect the views and aspirations of Hong Kong people,” Lee told dpa.
China has promised direct elections in the future and agreed to govern Hong Kong under the principle of “one country, two systems,” where the former British colony would enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years until 2047.
But activists fear Beijing will refuse to make any further efforts to fulfill these commitments.
“We just don’t know whether Beijing will have any flexibility in this matter,” said Edward Chin, a Hong Kong hedge fund manager and convener of the group 2047 Hong Kong Monitor.
“There’s been no sign that China is interested in genuine democratic reform. I think Hong Kong people will just keep getting more and more frustrated,” Chin said.
Shi Yinhong, professor of international politics at the People’s University in Beijing, said the central government “will never give in.”
“The city had an opportunity to reach a big milestone in its democratic development. But Hong Kong didn’t want it. You dont want it? Then that’s it.”
University of Hong Kong constitutional law expert Michael Davis said pan-democrat legislators will now be under pressure to explain their decision to voters in upcoming District Council and Legislative Council elections.
“Pro-Beijing groups will pour in a lot of resources and use many tactics to try to drive us out in next year’s election,” Lee said.
A small but growing separatist movement in the city also threatens to tarnish the image of pan-democrats.
Ten people were arrested and six brought to court for allegedly planning to set off explosives in the city before voting began.
Members of the alleged conspiracy were said to be part of a previously unknown group identified as the National Independent Party.
Emily Lau, chairwoman of the city’s Democratic Party, had stressed non-violence during deliberations in the Legislative Council, saying: “We don’t want independence, we don’t want a revolution, don’t want bloodshed.”