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China must trust Hong Kong's desire for democracy

After nearly two years of planning, discussion and then a year of promoting Beijing's vision of democracy, the Hong Kong government on Thursday suffered an embarrassing defeat on its proposed electoral reform legislation.

     An impromptu walk-out by pro-government lawmakers just before the vote -- supposedly meant to delay proceedings by creating an insufficient quorum -- misfired. There were enough lawmakers left in the legislative chamber for the historic vote to go ahead and the "no's" overwhelmed the "yes" camp by 28 to eight.

     However, even if the lawmakers had all stayed and voted, the united front presented by the opposition would still have been enough to veto the bill.

     For many in the local and international communities, this defeat demonstrates the Hong Kong people's vigorous determination to defend their city's autonomy, enshrined in its constitution since Britain returned it to mainland China in 1997.

     Many fear Beijing's increasing interference in Hong Kong's internal affairs will bring with it the corruption and lack of rule of law long witnessed on the mainland.

     It may seem strange that the opposition lawmakers -- who come under a loose alliance called the "pan-democrats" -- would vote against a reform bill that was meant to allow Hong Kong people to select their head of government by one person, one vote for the first time.

     The version of "universal suffrage" that is acceptable to Beijing comes with severe limitations, however, and they are designed to exclude anyone deemed unfriendly to the central government.

     The only candidates submitted to the voters would be those pre-selected by the majority vote of a 1,200-member, pro-Beijing nominating committee.

     This was revealed in an Aug. 31, 2014 decision by the National People's Congress -- China's highest lawmaking body -- which Beijing said it would not change despite the blocking of the reform bill on Thursday.

     This hardline approach towards Hong Kong was also highlighted by an earlier white paper published by the central government, which interpreted Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" model of governance as one in which the "one country" part was considered far more important. The paper also accused Hong Kong's pan-democratic camp of having a "confused and lopsided" view.

     With pan-democrats crying foul, the Aug. 31 decision ignited the "Occupy Central" civil disobedience campaign. Protesters, many of them students, staged a mass sit-in that paralyzed major roads in the city for 79 days. The movement riveted the world's attention as it accused Beijing and the Hong Kong administration of failed promises and presenting Hong Kong with fake democracy.

     The electoral reform proposal, voted down on Thursday, would have failed to produce a truly democratic government equipped to defend Hong Kong's autonomy and rule of law.

     A very submissive Hong Kong government promoting Beijing's vision already signals increasing Beijing interference in Hong Kong's autonomous affairs. In the white paper, the central administration likened Hong Kong to any other administrative region in China. Would Hong Kong cease to exist as the distinctive community it is known as today?

     The international community has long been asked to treat the city separately from mainland China and it has a direct interest in Beijing's commitments to preserving the main advantages of one of the world's largest financial centers.

     The city's success depends on Beijing's willingness for it to maintain the legal system it inherited from Britain, human rights and democracy standards that meet international covenants and a high degree of autonomy. Hong Kong's distinctive status is relied upon daily in countless international business transactions.

     Under the agreement between the UK and China ahead of the handover, Hong Kong is responsible for its own commercial, social and cultural relations. The guarantees of Hong Kong's autonomy, rule of law and basic freedoms are at the heart of its conduct in this regard, as well as its attractiveness as a financial center. Any diminution of Hong Kong's autonomy will surely undermine confidence in these institutions.

     This is clearly the time for the Beijing and Hong Kong governments to reevaluate the policies that led to the disastrous political failure on Thursday.

     Hong Kong need not be sacrificed to poorly-considered concerns about its supposed over-assertiveness.

     In trying to manage the election of the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Beijing was attempting to make sure the people of Hong Kong do not elect a head of government who may challenge its directives and authority. In trying to undercut resistance through such ill-conceived policies, officials managed instead to stir up even greater resistance on the streets from society at large.

     Guarantees of autonomy generally rely on a local government and community who are willing to defend that autonomy.

     When central governments seek to excessively interfere, they need to see pushback from local officials ready to defend theirautonomy in the best interest of the local community and the wider nation.

     The current Hong Kong government has had difficulty finding its voice in this regard.

     There is a need to embrace a genuine democratic model whereby the Hong Kong people are trusted to elect the appropriate officials who will take on this responsibility.

Professor Michael Davis is a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. 

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