Reuters/Bobby Yip
Like this, but in the legislature.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers are about to “Occupy” the government

By Heather Timmons

HONG KONG—Police cleared much of another Umbrella Movement protest site in Hong Kong last night, displacing dozens of demonstrators from the center of the working-class neigborhood of Mong Kok. They left the city’s encircled and shrinking main protest site intact, for now, but the fight over democracy in Hong Kong is quietly shifting to another battleground: the city’s deeply divided legislature.

Hong Kong’s “pan-democrat” politicians—who, like the protesters, support universal suffrage—hold 27 of the 35 directly-elected seats in the legislature. The remaining 35 seats are chosen by so-called functional constituencies: special interest groups that represent industries like fishing or tourism, and are often criticized for being pro-Beijing. Consequently, pan-democrats are a minority, and chair just two of the 18 panels that make laws, control funding and disperse the city’s HK$411 billion ($53 billion) annual budget.

While Hong Kong’s student-sparked pro-democracy protests have garnered huge international attention, many of these legislators have been vociferously fighting the same fight for years in Hong Kong, and openly railing against Beijing’s policies. The day after Beijing said it would not allow Hong Kong citizens to nominate candidates for chief executive, for example, they heckled Beijing’s representative in Hong Kong, calling him “shameful” and accusing him of “breaking a promise:”

AP Photo/Kin Cheung
Pan-democratic politicians protest Beijing’s controversial August 31 decision.

Earlier this month most of the pan-democrat lawmakers signaled they had a new plan to push for universal suffrage, by enacting legislative roadblocks to many city projects. They just piled into the “public works” and “establishment” subcommittees, which must endorse new projects and new positions, respectively, before they are sent to the finance committee for a final vote. Pan-democrats now serve as the chairmen of these subcommittees, meaning they may be able to delay everything from new roads and sports stadiums to primary schools funding.

Hong Kong government’s 2014-2015 expenditure

“The chair will use the power to put those that we support first and those that we don’t later,” Emily Lau, a legislator and chairman of the Democratic Party, told Quartz. By using this “obstructionist mechanism,” the pan-democrats hope to show their opponents “how to conduct things in a peaceful way,” she said. “We have not needed to do this, but now is an exceptional time.”

One sure target of the democrats is a controversial “innovation and technology bureau,” which would, according to its backers, focus on encouraging growth of the IT industry in Hong Kong. But some pan-democractic lawmakers say the bureau has much more ominous intent. The proposal is really a “plan to control Hong Kong’s online journalistic freedom, and that’s not going to happen,” Claudia Mo, a legislator from the Civic Party, told Quartz. “We’re going to stall it and try to take it down.”

The bureau plans to assign a digital ID to every Hong Kong citizen, and would oversee the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, which deals with everything from public wifi to internet security. Various pan-democratic politicians have already weighed in on the bureau, stressing the need to ”uphold the commitment of defending a free and open Internet.”

Land use proposals are also likely to be targeted, including controversial incinerator and garbage treatment expansion pans, Mo said. (Here’s a list of the items the public works subcommittee will consider at its first meeting Oct. 22.) But projects that are important for the general well-being of Hong Kong citizens will be passed unharmed, she said, like improvements to local hospitals. “We’re going to leave a humanitarian corridor,” she said.