Hong Kong pro-democracy MPs and activists have disrupted a Beijing official’s speech explaining a decision to rule out allowing residents to freely choose their next leader.
The protesters chanted slogans and held up placards accusing China‘s central government of “breaking its promise” to let Hong Kong directly elect its leader. Some stood on chairs and pumped their fists, waving signs that said “Shameful” and “Loss of faith”.
The noisy demonstration on Monday at the start of the speech by Li Fei, a deputy secretary general of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, was a rare occasion on which a Beijing official faced open defiance.
Li continued his speech after security officers moved the MPs out of the auditorium, to applause from other audience members, including lawmakers and local councillors from pro-establishment parties and business leaders.
Police used pepper spray on members of a radical activist group when they tried to storm metal barricades and enter the venue.
Pro-democracy activists have vowed to take over Hong Kong’s financial centre in a civil disobedience campaign after Beijing’s decision was announced over the weekend.
Beijing has long promised that the chief executive of the region would be elected by universal suffrage from 2017, prompting Occupy Central and pan-democrat MPs to fight for substantial electoral changes.
But authorities made it clear on Sunday that Beijing would control the nominating process, and the framework endorsed by the standing committee is particularly tough. It will allow only two or three candidates and require them to gain the backing of at least half the members of a nominating committee stacked with Beijing loyalists. It effectively rules out a democrat from standing.
Li told journalists that opening up nominations would create a “chaotic society” and that the chief executive needed to “love the country and love the party”.
He added: “These rights come from laws, they don’t come from the sky … Many Hong Kong people have wasted a lot of time discussing things that are not appropriate and aren’t discussing things that are appropriate.”
The Democratic party’s founding chairman, Martin Lee, poured scorn on the idea that the two or three candidates would offer voters a meaningful choice, asking those at a Sunday night pro-democracy rally: “What’s the difference between a rotten orange, rotten apple and a rotten banana? We want genuine universal suffrage, not democracy with Chinese characteristics.”
Benny Tai, one of the leaders of the Occupy Central with Peace and Love movement, told the crowd of thousands that the city was entering an “era of civil disobedience”.
The movement said in a statement: “We are very sorry to say that today all chances of dialogue have been exhausted and the occupation of Central will definitely happen.” It will be preceded by other actions, including a mass boycott of classes by students.
Hong Kong enjoys considerably more freedoms than the mainland under the “one country two systems” framework established on the handover of the former British colony in 1997.
But Xi Jinping has tightened the party’s grip on the mainland, with lawyers, activists and journalists under increased pressure since he came to power, and activists in Hong Kong fear their liberties will be eroded.
The decision passed by the standing committee of the congress, China’s mostly rubber-stamp legislature, said: “Since the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and the sovereignty, security and development interests of the country are at stake, there is a need to proceed in a prudent and steady manner.”
State media quoted an unnamed Chinese foreign ministry official at the weekend warning that some in Hong Kong were “colluding with foreign forces to cause trouble for the government”, adding that their goal “was to turn the city into a bridgehead for subversion and infiltration against the country”.
Pan-democrats have vowed to block the changes in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong (LegCo) vote that is required to pass them. If the changes fall, the electoral system will continue as present – with a committee of 1,200 people, selected by the region’s generally pro-Beijing elites, picking the next chief executive.
Emily Lau, LegCo member and chair of the Democratic party, said: “I am not disappointed, because I never had much expectation. I’m infuriated and very, very unhappy. Beijing has reneged on its promise.
“I guess they do not trust the Hong Kong people. The struggle will go on.”
David Zweig, of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said: “This leadership is tough, as we have seen for a long time. They are not making any concessions on this.”
He noted that the government needed four or five LegCo members from the pan-democrat camp to switch for the decision to be adopted. The stakes were even higher because if universal suffrage was not introduced for the election of the chief executive, it would not be introduced for the subsequent election of LegCo members.
“If it falls there is no reform at all. That is their leverage – it is take it or leave it … It is progress in the eyes of the majority of people in Hong Kong. [But] would they have wanted more? Absolutely,” he said.
He added that, on the pro-democracy side, “I don’t think people will pack up and go away, even with the videos of troop carriers going down the streets of Hong Kong”.
Earlier this week, People’s Liberation Army armoured personnel carriers were seen in busy areas of the city. While some have speculated that Beijing hardened its line in response to the pro-democracy campaign, Occupy Central co-founder Chan Kin-man said that was just an excuse.
“Look at Macau. People are really soft and submissive and they don’t even give them a choice of two candidates in the chief executive election. This is the result when people don’t fight,” he said. Fernando Chui, the leader of the former Portuguese colony of Macau – which is another special administrative region – was chosen again on Sunday by a Beijing-supportive committee of just 400 people.