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'Zero democracy'

Bilsky Philipp Kommentarbild App
Philipp Bilsky
June 18, 2015

Hong Kong's Legislative Council has rejected the proposed electoral reforms, thus putting an end to the "Umbrella Revolution." The city now faces a divided society and a political stalemate, writes DW's Philipp Bilsky.

China Demonstration für Demokratie in Hongkong
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. de la Rey

It all ended earlier than expected. Although most observers had anticipated a vote to take place only on Friday, Hong Kong lawmakers voted down a Beijing-backed electoral reform package a day earlier.

This, however, doesn't come as a full surprise. It had been clear from the beginning that the proposition lacked enough support in the city's 70-member legislature, where two-thirds had to vote in favor for the bill to pass.

Therefore, as expected, the lawmakers voted against the electoral reform - a development that marks the end of the "Umbrella Revolution" which began last September.

No right to vote

The main question surrounding the debate over electoral reforms revolved around how the leader of the semi-autonomous Chinese region was to be elected in the years to come. In the past, Hong Kongers had no right to vote. Under the British colonial rule – which lasted until 1997 – city governors were always appointed by London.

The wishes of the city's population played no part in the governors' appointments. Following the region's return to Chinese rule, a pro-Beijing committee made up of 1,200 members began choosing Hong Kong's Chief Executive. But the people only had a marginal say in their leader's election.

Philipp Bilsky
DW's Philipp BilskyImage: DW/M.Müller

At the time of city's handover to China, both sides agreed that 20 years later Hong Kongers would be able to elect the chief executive by universal suffrage. However, it remained unclear how exactly that process would take place. Beijing's plan was to allow Hong Kongers to elect the city's leader by popular vote in 2017, but only after each of the three candidates allowed had been approved by a majority of a 1,200-member election committee. However, the China-vetted reform proposal has now been vetoed in the legislature. The pro-democracy side has rejected this "fake democracy."

So what remains of the umbrella revolution?

But what does this mean for Hong Kong? And what remains of the "Umbrella Revolution?" Optimists say the movement politicized a whole generation. They claim that Hong Kongers, who were said to be only interested in making money, are now enthusiastic about democratic values and have committed themselves to the cause.

This may be true, but only partly. First of all, many of last fall's demonstrations were mainly directed against the level of violence exercised by the police against student protests. Many Hong Kongers had taken to the streets to vent their general discontent with the mainland, particularly over issues such as the improper conduct of mainland visitors, rising housing prices due to mainland investors and businesses that have tailored their products to mainland visitors by specializing in goods such as powdered milk.

But another key aspect is that the politicization didn't seem to last long, as the number of protesters began dwindling in the following months. The recent developments make one thing particularly clear: The gap between mainland China and Hong Kong has considerably widened over the past few months. An increasing number of Hong Kongers is of the view that "those over there" don't have anything to do with "us over here in Hong Kong." The city's population is divided.

According to a survey conducted ahead of the parliamentary debate, 47 percent of Hong Kongers said they supported Beijing's reform plans, while 38 percent opposed them and 15 percent said they were undecided. But probably the most important thing for now is that the city remains in a political stalemate.

While "fake democracy" may be off the table, the Chinese-controlled financial hub is still experiencing the quasi "zero democracy" of previous years. And it seems highly unlikely that this will change in the foreseeable future.

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