The day Hong Kong's Legco entered a parallel universe
Passionate pan-democrats decry plan that would give votes to all while Beijing loyalists back it
The Legislative Council chamber was a surreal place yesterday.
Pan-democrats who had fought for years for democracy decried a government package that would allow Hong Kong people to choose their leader by one person, one vote. Their Beijing-loyalist rivals, hardly known as staunch pro-democrats, argued in favour of universal suffrage.
While supporters and opponents of reform made a colourful pitch outside, the atmosphere inside the chamber was sombre. Some lawmakers were close to tears, while others quoted Shakespeare or George Orwell to make their points on the first day of the historic debate.
Each lawmaker had just 15 minutes to speak, and their remarks boiled down to a question of whether to trust in Beijing to offer "genuine universal suffrage" in future, with little said about the details of the proposal.
Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit - one of the 27 pan-democrats who have vowed to vote down the proposal - was first to speak, condemning the package as misleading and worse than no change. "As the famous saying in William Shakespeare's Hamlet goes: To be or not to be. The political reform this time is in the same position: To be or not to be," he said.
"Should we accept [Beijing's framework] in humiliation or vote it down? To be or not to be? My choice is clear and my way is not going to be swayed. I will vote it down. And I can be tested by history."
Lee Cheuk-yan of the Labour Party added: "It is to be Hong Kong or not to be Hong Kong. If the package is passed, Hong Kong will be dead. If the package is rejected, Hong Kong will stay alive. What would you choose?"
Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing said she would recognise the city's government "only when I and my people can elect it". "I'm saddened - and angry - to vote down the proposal, but I have no other choice… today will be the end of a tragedy, but Hongkongers should not be disappointed as there will be a new beginning."
She criticised the nominating committee that would pick two or three candidates under the government's model, saying it would screen out pan-democrats. "All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than the others," she added, with a nod to Orwell's Animal Farm.
Moderate pan-democrat Ronny Tong Ka-wah used his speech to hint he would not seek another term at next year's election. "It should be the last time for me to talk about political reform in this chamber," Tong said.
And Tong, whose stance often puts him at odds with his fellow Civic Party members, also criticised fellow pan-democrats. "It should be for the pan-democrats to put forward a package to lobby Beijing. But we did not do so. The pan-democrats used Occupy protests to press Beijing, and in return, we got the August 31" framework for reform, he said.
He said passing the package "grudgingly" would have a "catastrophic impact on society" and hoped future lawmakers would be able to "resolve the discrepancies between the expectations of Hongkongers and Beijing."
The Labour Party's Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said: "It's laughable that a group that does not have free will [the pro-establishment camp] says we pan-democrats … should exercise free will when casting our votes. None of you ever wants democracy and now you blame us for obstructing democracy."
The debate was expected to last at least two days. But the pace slowed in the late afternoon in what was understood to be a pro-establishment strategy to let pan-democrats speak first so they could control the timing of the vote. Of the 25 lawmakers who spoke, 16 were pan-democrats.
At about 5pm, acting president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen suggested proceeding to a vote, as no one was queuing to speak. Democrat Albert Ho Chun-yan, who was supposed to wrap up the pan-democrat argument, was forced to take his turn. He and the Civic Party's Dennis Kwok even called a quorum count forcing lawmakers to scurry back to the chamber to avoid an adjournment due to a lack of numbers.
Among the pro-establishment speakers, Vincent Fang Kang, of the Liberal Party, asked pan-democrats: "Which one is a step ahead to democracy, five million having a vote, or 1,200 people having a vote?"
Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said voting for the plan would "create history". Unionist Wong Kwok-hing said rejecting it would "steal people's votes" and mocked pan-democrats who cited old colonial master Britain's political model.
The debate resumes today.
Ip Kin-yuen, Professional Teachers’ Union
If a no vote means opposing the constitution, then we can only cast yes votes in future. If how you vote is a touchstone, this is totally unacceptable, particularly in a contemporary society. After the vote Hong Kong will enter a multi-loss situation. The central government is not winning. We may be in an even wider split.
Felix Chung Kwok-pan, Liberal Party chairman
The current chief executive won Beijing’s backing before he got elected with 689 votes. Of course he would listen to Beijing. But after you pass the proposal, there are five million people who can vote … and there is an order. The foremost condition is about Hong Kong people, and Beijing’s approval is the second condition. This is of paramount importance.
Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, Labour Party
Mum says we’ve found you three candidates and you can choose one –Is that free love? Don’t fool a kid. Even a primary school pupil understands that it is not. It’s laughable that a group that cannot have free will – I mean the officials and pro-establishment camp – says we pan-democrats should have free will when casting our votes. None of you ever wants democracy and now you blame us for obstructing democracy? How ridiculous!
Lee Cheuk-yan, Labour Party chairman
The central government certainly has no sincerity in implementing universal suffrage in Hong Kong. They have perceived the situation wrongly, to believe that Hongkongers would kowtow and accept a sham universal suffrage via their smear campaigns and divisive tactics. [The proposal] would turn Hongkongers into mere voting tools and their votes would only be the gold placed on the face of Beijing’s appointed candidates.
Leung Kwok-hung, League of Social Democrats chairman
History is written by the people. Proceeding towards full universal suffrage is what Hong Kong deserves and that would also take our country to the road of democracy… The pro-establishment camp has accused us of being traitors [for not supporting the package] and they are given a chance to condemn us in the chamber. You should voice out your arguments if you support the reform plan, not simply sit here and press the button. I know some of you might want to wait till the end so you could refute our speeches, but you can’t as you are not even qualified.