Hong Kong’s pro-democracy parties are battling to retain one-third control of the Legislative Council, as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying sought to sway voters with a last-minute reversal on Chinese identity classes.
The pro-democracy parties have won 18 out of 35 seats based on geography, a worse showing than the 2008 election, according to early poll results. They need to get at least six more seats. Industry groups are picking 30 lawmakers, while votes for 5 more seats are still being counted.
The election followed a weekend decision by Chief Executive Leung to scrap a three-year deadline for the introduction of the Chinese identity lessons after black-clad protesters besieged government headquarters for 10 days. Discontent in Hong Kong has risen as an influx of mainland Chinese fueled a surge in property prices, flooded the city with tourists, and led to competition for hospital beds in maternity wards.
“The credibility of the government has been damaged a lot in the past few months and it’s not helped by the last minute decision on that national education issue,” said Joseph Wong, visiting professor at the City University of Hong Kong.
Leung’s reversal marked his third policy change announced in just as many days, after he abandoned a trip to the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, to quell discontent in the former British colony.
Pro-democracy parties, led by the Democratic Party and Civic Party, are seeking to retain or expand their one-third presence on the council, which gives them the power to veto constitutional changes that require a two-thirds majority.
Protesters headed home after Leung’s Sept. 8 announcement.
“Following this announcement, I hope that education will return to education, campus life will return to normal,” Leung said at the press conference.
Dissatisfaction at the way the government deals with China has risen to the highest level in eight years, according to a survey by the Hong Kong Transition Project, which has tracked changes in the city since its return to China in 1997.
“In the short term, national education is an important issue, but in broader terms many people are concerned about the central government’s influence in Hong Kong,” said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Leung is the last chief executive to be chosen by a 1,193 member-committee comprising of billionaires, lawmakers and representatives from industries. He made narrowing a wealth gap and making homes affordable key parts of his campaign.
An influx of mainland Chinese has increased competition for property and schooling. This month, neighboring Shenzhen relaxed visa rules to make it easier for more than 4 million non- permanent residents to visit the city. Leung said Sept. 7 the new policy will be suspended as Hong Kong studies whether it can support the extra visitors.
Home prices have soared by about 88 percent since the start of 2009, driven by record low-interest rates and purchases by mainland buyers. Chinese mothers taking up hospital beds has also spurred dissatisfaction in Hong Kong.
Leung announced plans on Sept. 6 for the sale of two land sites on which homes will be built only for locals. The chief executive announced a measure to stop Chinese mothers from giving birth in the city earlier in the year.
Students have camped out at government headquarters since Aug. 30 demanding it drop plans for national education classes that they said paint an overly favorable picture of Communist Party rule in China. Schools will now decide when and how they want to introduce the subject, Leung said.
“People power” forced the government to backtrack, the Civil Alliance Against National Education said in an e-mailed statement, calling for the complete withdrawal of the subject. The group has ended its hunger strike and protests, it said.
“We are also worried about whether the education bureau will funnel lots of funding to encourage the schools to teach the curriculum,” said Yip Po Lam, an organizer of Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese.
Leung was backed by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, also known as the DAB, which with 10 seats is the largest party in the Legislative Council. He also has support from the The Federation of Trade Unions, which has four. Other political parties in the council include the Liberal Party and Economic Synergy, which are advocates for businesses.
Of the 70 seats, 30 are picked by representatives in specific industries including finance and education. A further 216 candidates will battle for 35 seats in five geographical constituencies.
Pro-democracy parties have backed the students’ call to stop the national education classes, while the DAB supported the introduction of the curriculum.
“Caving in to public opinion about national education shows a very disturbing weakness of the two-month old Leung administration,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “This will continue to divide Hong Kong society and remain a controversial issue.”
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