Hong Kong lawmakers resign to add pressure for democracy

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

HONG KONG -- Five Hong Kong opposition legislators resigned Tuesday to pressure Beijing for direct elections, in what some consider a desperate bid to revive the campaign for democracy in this semiautonomous former British colony.

Flashing victory signs, the lawmakers from the League of Social Democrats and Civic Party held up their resignation letters for photographers before handing them over to the secretary of Hong Kong's Legislative Council.

A British outpost for more than 150 years, this wealthy financial hub of 7 million people was returned to China's communist regime 13 years ago under a special political status that promises Western-style government and civil liberties.

But Beijing has withheld democracy. The territory's leader is chosen by an 800-member committee and its legislature is half elected, half chosen by interest groups. China ruled in 2007 that Hong Kong can't elect its leader until 2017 and its entire legislature until this year.

Hong Kong's democracy activists say locals are ready now to choose their leaders. In their latest campaign, the two opposition parties hope to pressure China by having the five legislators resign, forcing a special election that would pit pro-democracy and pro-China candidates against one another in what they say will be a de facto referendum on democracy.

The resignation plan highlights the dire situation of Hong Kong's democracy movement. When Hong Kong was on the verge of return to Chinese rule in 1997, its democracy activists warned that the authoritarian Chinese government would crack down on freedom. But those fears never materialized, with Hong Kong's opposition figures and freewheeling press left largely untouched.

The democracy campaign enjoyed a brief revival in 2003, when the Hong Kong government tried to pass a national security bill wanted by Beijing. Many Hong Kongers considered it too draconian, and half a million people marched in protest.

But protest numbers have dwindled since then as locals turned their attention to economic issues. With public interest waning, democracy activists are looking for a new spark.

"They are doing this partly out of frustration," Chinese University of Hong Kong political scientist Ma Ngok said. "They feel they need to do something more radical, try something new."

The resignation-turned-referendum plan is a long shot. Recent polls show tepid public support. Hong Kong's leading opposition party, the Democratic Party, chose not to take part. Already one leading pro-Beijing party has said it will boycott the special elections. Others could follow suit.

The Chinese government has recently warned the legislators not to resign. There was no immediate Chinese comment on Tuesday.

Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang said in a statement the "so-called referendum" has no legal grounding.

"The government will not recognize it," he said. "Legislators should do their jobs and fulfill their constitutional duty through the legislature. They shouldn't quit easily."

The Hong Kong government is required by law to organize special elections as soon as possible, but no deadline is set in the law. Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau spokeswoman Bonnie Yip said Tuesday the government will follow the law but declined to give a timeframe for the by-elections.

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