When China took control of Hong Kong from Great Britain back in 1997, voting rights for all was one of the promises it made. These were rights Britain never gave the island’s citizens during its 156-year rule.
This Sunday’s election in Hong Kong was expected to be the first in which each and every resident would be allowed to vote for the city’s top leader, the chief executive. But it won’t be the case. Many city residents are calling Sunday “Selection Day,” since they won’t be allowed to vote directly.
Anson Chan, who oversaw Great Britain’s 1997 handover to China as the city’s chief secretary, remembers “being rolled out” 20 years ago “to tell the rest of the world: ‘You should put your hearts and minds at ease, because we have all these promises the two countries have agreed to.'”
Chan’s message back then to her fellow Hong Kong citizens was: Don’t worry, the flag flying in Hong Kong is now a Chinese one, but everything else will remain the same.
“And yet,” Chan says, “we are now just 20 years after the handover, and if I knew then what I know today, I would never have gone to do these ‘pitch sales’ with such enthusiasm.”
Hong Kong’s handover to China kicked off a lengthy consultation period, during which city leaders — many backed by Beijing — met with residents to gather opinions on how the city should implement voting rights. Like many others, Hong Kong-based writer Suzanne Pepper, an American, advised the Chinese to let everyone vote.
“At the end of it,” she says, “Beijing issued a decision and they said no. They ignored everybody. They ignored all the opinions.”
Beijing’s edict, delivered by China’s top leadership in August 2014, was that all the people of Hong Kong would be able to vote for their city leader — but only after a nominating committee loyal to Beijing selected the candidates.
The city reacted quickly: Tens of thousands of protesters shut down the financial district for more than two months in what was later dubbed the Umbrella Movement, named for the umbrellas used to shield protesters from police teargas.
Months later, Hong Kong’s legislative council rejected Beijing’s plan for electoral reform, leaving Hong Kong with its old system – one in which members of business and pro-Beijing groups dominate an election committee of 1,194 people who vote for the city’s chief executive.
The candidate China’s government favors, Carrie Lam, is almost certain to win on Sunday. For the past five years, Lam has been Hong Kong’s chief secretary – the city’s second-in-command. In 2014, she faced off against protesting students in a televised debate, a performance that pleased Beijing but left her unpopular with many Hong Kong residents.
Nearly all public opinion polls show her main opponent, former city financial secretary John Tsang, would likely win in a citywide election.
That’s who office worker Ashley Lam would vote for, if he could.
“We need someone who has a sense of civic duty,” Lam says outside his office in the city’s Quarry Bay neighborhood. “Hong Kong is changing. Mainland Chinese are immigrating here, and they don’t understand democracy. They bring with them the sense that money and connections are the way to get things done. This really disturbs me.”
Lam says he struggles to explain what’s happening to his children. His best advice, he says with a frown, is for them to move someday to Australia or New Zealand, places where people have rights.
Former chief secretary Chan says she’s sad to admit that she has doled out the same advice to her own grandchildren.
“That is not the only thing that makes me sad and angry,” Chan says. “It is to see the systematic demolition of a perfectly good system. And the fact that, increasingly, the top levels in the government are not filled by able people who have some credibility and standing within the community, but by people whose criteria is not merit, but simply whether you’re loyal and whether you’ll toe the line. This is what makes young people very afraid of the Chinese model of governance being imported into Hong Kong.”
This sense of hopelessness is what Hong Kong elected official Claudia Mo predicts will lead to anger if — or when — Carrie Lam prevails as the city’s chief executive.
“It’s going to look very ugly,” Mo says. “Hong Kong people once again will feel that they’re being horrendously let down. We got cheated again. ‘You like A, we’ll give you B.’ This is not going to go down well.”