Hong Kong lawmakers argue government's political reforms

Legislators began a final debate Wednesday on a political reform package that pro-democracy lawmakers have vowed to reject because it provides no timetable for when Hong Kong will become fully democratic. The government has warned that Hong Kong's gradual move toward greater democracy would be derailed if legislators reject the reforms. The package proposes adding seats in the legislature and expanding a committee of elites who pick the city's leader.

Pro-democracy lawmakers have dismissed the proposal as another example of the government's foot-dragging on satisfying the public's demand for greater political freedom.

A vote was expected after a marathon legislative debate that was expected to stretch into Thursday. Pro-government lawmaker Ma Lik argued that Hong Kong wasn't ready for full democracy and that the public still needed to reach a consensus on the best way and time to achieve universal suffrage.

"We have to admit that the majority of the public supports democracy," said Ma, chairman of the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. "But democracy can't be monopolized by anybody."

Pro-democracy lawmakers have argued that Hong Kong's prosperous, stable and well-educated society is ready for full democracy. They've been unwilling to settle for anything less than a clear timetable for when voters can choose their leader and entire legislature. "The package is really something that would short change the Hong Kong people," lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung said. Tens of thousands of people marched against the reform plan earlier this month. Analysts said it was doubtful the package would pass.

"I would not at this stage totally rule out any possibility of it getting through, but of course the cards on the table are not favorable for a positive vote," said Anthony Cheung, a public administration professor who serves in Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang's Cabinet.

Hong Kongers were denied the right to elect their leader when the city was a British colony. When it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing also balked at allowing full democracy, though it has said universal suffrage is a longterm goal.

The city is under a "one country, two systems" formula, designed to give Hong Kong a wide-degree of autonomy. Its people enjoy civil liberties, like the freedom to hold political protests and criticize their leaders in the media, that those on the mainland can only dream about.

However, Hong Kong's leader, or chief executive, is chosen by an 800-member committee loaded with Beijing loyalists. Only half of the 60-member legislature is elected, and the rest is picked by special interest groups. The government's political reform package proposes doubling the size of the 800-member leader-selection panel. It also calls for adding 10 new seats, half of them directly elected, to the legislature, reports the AP. I.L.

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