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Hong Kong's Drive For Open Elections Runs Low On Steam


The drive for open elections in Hong Kong may be running out of steam. Earlier this week China insisted that people in Hong Kong would not be allowed to nominate candidates for the territory's next leader. Still, Occupy Central, a local democracy movement, is threatening more protests in the city's financial district. But organizers acknowledge only 3,000 people have signed pledges to participate.

Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Occupy Central had demanded open elections for the territory's next chief executive in 2017. On Sunday though, China's government insisted that a committee no doubt loyal to Beijing, would decide who was on the ballot. Occupy Central still plans to launch civil disobedience demonstrations in the coming weeks, but the group's cofounder, Kin-man Chan, acknowledges they'll be mostly symbolic.

KIN-MAN CHAN: Well, it's quite unlikely to change the decision made by Beijing now, but we still need to do it to show our disappointment, to preserve our dignity and also to preserve the spirit of resistance.

LANGFITT: Chan says some people have drifted from the movement since Beijing's decision because they now see demonstrations as pointless. He also says some in Hong Kong's older generations are deeply pragmatic.

CHAN: All along, many people see Hong Kong as an economic society. My parents' generation - they escaped the political turbulence from China and came to Hong Kong just to find a shelter, a stable life. So they want to avoid politics. And this is the way they taught us. So it is a very conservative society.

LANGFITT: But Chan says younger people in Hong Kong are much more willing to embrace Occupy's radical tactics. And Beijing's decision has made them angrier.

CHAN: People who have supported now become even more committed. The spirit is even stronger.

MICHAEL DEGOLYER: The surveys we've run and all the surveys I have seen - none of them have returned a majority of people who support Occupy Central, either as an action or a strategy.

LANGFITT: Michael DeGolyer is a professor of government at Hong Kong Baptist University. He's been studying Hong Kong's transition from British colony to Chinese sovereignty since the late 1980s. When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control in 1997, Beijing promised it would be able to retain free speech, a free press and an independent court system. DeGolyer says people today overwhelmingly want direct elections, but many found Occupy Central too extreme, especially business owners who feared civil disobedience would paralyze the city's central district and destroy their revenue.

DEGOLYER: It's the smaller businesses that would begin to be hurt and perhaps even pushed out of business. It's taking out and inflicting a lot of peripheral damage to people who are not only innocent, but who may actually be supporting.

LANGFITT: DeGolyer says Hong Kong now has few options. China's government has proposed that citizens can vote on two or three candidates that Beijing has essentially vetted. But Hong Kong's legislature must approve that plan. DeGolyer says he expects enough lawmakers will veto it on principle.

DEGOLYER: A group of 27 pro-democracy legislators have all vowed not to pass any proposed legislation that goes through. Of course if they stick with their pledge, then nothing will change.

LANGFITT: In other words, there would be no public vote at all, and Hong Kong's next chief executive will be chosen the same way as in the past - entirely by committee. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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