A mainly pro-China committee began voting for a new leader of Hong Kong on Sunday to take the helm of the deeply divided city, which is fearful Beijing is curtailing its freedoms.
It is the first leadership vote since mass ‘Umbrella Movement’ rallies calling for fully free elections in 2014 failed to win reform and comes after a turbulent term under current chief executive Leung Chun-ying.
Leung is seen by opponents as a Beijing puppet and will step down in July after five years in charge.
Hong Kong is semi-autonomous and has been governed under a “one country, two systems” deal since it was handed back to China by Britain in 1997.
But, 20 years on, there are serious concerns Beijing is disregarding the handover agreement designed to protect Hong Kong’s way of life.
Activists call the vote a sham as around three quarters of committee members are from the pro-mainland camp.
Frustration at what they see as China’s increasing influence and a lack of promised political reform has sparked calls for self-determination for Hong Kong, or even a complete split from China.
Sunday’s election is forecast to usher in another divisive leader -- Leung’s former deputy Carrie Lam.
Lam is widely seen as Beijing’s favourite for the job and would become Hong Kong’s first ever woman chief executive.
She is intensely disliked by the pro-democracy camp after promoting the Beijing-backed reform package that sparked 2014’s massive protests.
That plan said the public could choose the city leader in 2017, but insisted candidates must be vetted first.
It was eventually voted down in parliament by pro-democracy lawmakers and reforms have been shelved ever since.
Voting opened for members of the committee at the city’s heavily guarded harbour-front convention centre at 9:00am local time as protesters gathered outside.
Pro-China supporters played marching music surrounded by national and city flags opposite a group of democracy campaigners who had camped out in the square near the convention centre overnight.
One protester said he did not believe any of the nominees would improve life in Hong Kong. “The three candidates don’t have the determination for reform,” said Tommy Ho, 32.
Representatives of a broad number of sectors, from business to education, sit on the 1,194-strong committee that chooses the chief executive, but the vast majority of the city’s 3.8 million electorate have no say in the vote.
Pro-democracy committee members say they will throw their weight behind Lam’s main rival, ex-finance secretary John Tsang, seen as a more moderate establishment figure.
But activists say he is still on the side of Beijing and reject the vote outright.
The new leader will face an uphill struggle to unite a city in which young people in particular have lost faith in the political system and their overall prospects.
With salaries too low to meet the cost of property in an overpriced market fuelled by mainland money, getting ahead in life is seen as increasingly difficult.
Lam says she will try to build consensus by focusing on social issues, including poverty and housing.
But critics say she is dodging the bigger political questions and will pave the way for Beijing to extend its influence.
That anxiety comes off the back of a number of incidents under Leung that rocked public confidence.
They include the disappearance in 2015 of five Hong Kong booksellers known for publishing salacious titles about China’s political elite. The booksellers all resurfaced in detention on the mainland.
Last year, the disqualification from parliament of two publicly elected pro-independence lawmakers following a Beijing intervention also prompted accusations the city’s legislature had been seriously compromised.