Hong Kong chooses new leader as China looks on

Electoral Committee begins vote counting in deeply divided city, with some fearful of China curtailing its freedoms.

A mainly pro-China committee has begun vote counting in an election for a new leader of Hong Kong 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.

OPINION: Hong Kong’s election – A vote without voters

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.

Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Hong Kong, explained that the election committee counted about 1,194 members that represent a cross-section of business and interest groups in the city.

“It is important to remember that these committee members are overwhelmingly susceptible to Beijing’s way of thinking,” he said.

“And in this election, China has made it very clear who it wants to win. The people will not have a say in these elections, it is the committee who have been voting in secret.”

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.

Carrie Lam ‘frontrunner’

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.

“If she wins, this is the beginning of a long and an uphill battle,” Andrew Leung, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera. 

“We’ve got two big issues there; one issue is that there was a huge rift between the establishment and the pan democrats who feel that they are disenfranchised. They don’t have a role in governance, so politically they need to push the envelope further and futher.

“The second thing, of course, is the society. There are those young people who don’t see any hope for their future, so Carrie Lam  needs to express their aspirations, aspirations of the anti-Beijing and anti-establishment camp,” Leung said. 

The vote is forecast to usher in Leung Chun-ying's former deputy Carrie Lam [Kin Cheung/AP]
The vote is forecast to usher in Leung Chun-ying’s former deputy Carrie Lam [Kin Cheung/AP]

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 politicians and reforms have been shelved ever since.

As the election got under way on Sunday, hundreds of protesters, including leading pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, gathered near the harbour-front voting venue.

WATCH: Hong Kong’s Localist Revolutionaries

They chanted: “Oppose central authority appointment, we choose our own government!”

Protesters were held back by police as some tried to push through barriers.

Nearby, pro-China supporters played marching music surrounded by national and city flags.

Rebel legislator Nathan Law, who as a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council has an automatic vote, said he would enter a blank ballot.

“It is still a selection from the Beijing government,” Law told AFP news agency.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies