By James Pomfret
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s democratic opposition is aiming to win back a crucial legislative council seat in an election on Sunday that will restore some of its veto power at a time when the China-ruled city’s freedoms are under strain.
The city’s opposition Democrats squandered a chance in March to regain their veto power, garnering only two of four seats in a by-election and leaving them one seat short of blocking most bills in the 70-seat chamber, now largely controlled by pro-Beijing allies.
After 156 years of British colonial rule, Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula guaranteeing it a high degree of autonomy and the promise of eventual universal suffrage.
While the Democrats have enjoyed strong public backing in the past from a public aggrieved by China’s creeping control of the Asian financial hub, they’ve struggled against a far larger and better funded pro-Beijing camp and unprecedented moves by authorities to curb electoral freedoms.
A pro-independence political party was banned this year, while several promising democracy activists were barred from contesting various polls after being deemed ideologically unsuitable for public office.
Sunday’s by-election, and that in March, were triggered when six pro-democracy lawmakers were ousted over invalid oaths of office. Critics said the move was politically motivated, raising fresh questions over Hong Kong’s reputation as a relative haven for freedoms not allowed anywhere in mainland China.
“Apathy is our biggest enemy so far,” Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran former lawmaker and candidate for the main opposition pro-democracy party, told Reuters.
“This election is crucial … we can further resist the erosion of our power base by the (Chinese) Communist party. I think most people don’t want Hong Kong to become another Chinese city.”
Lee’s main rival will be pro-establishment Rebecca Chan Hoi-yan, a former television journalist with broadcaster TVB. In the run-up to the election Chan was ensnared in several controversies including plagiarising the work of democratic politicians.
The poll comes at a time of increasing international concern towards a perceived deterioration in Hong Kong civil liberties.
Nine activists including lawmakers and university professors are now facing public nuisance charges stemming from the massive pro-democracy “Occupy Central” protests in 2014. Their landmark trial could see them jailed for up to seven years.
A senior editor for the Financial Times, Victor Mallet, was also effectively expelled from the city in recent months, soon after he helped host a speech by an independence activist at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned in a congressional report this month that China had “ramped up its interference” and had “closed down the political space for pro-democracy activists to express discontent”.
(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Michael Perry)