Analects, The Economist – MORE than 400,000 votes were cast online Friday in the first day of an unofficial city-wide referendum on democratic reforms in Hong Kong, according to organisers, who have alleged that forces possibly connected to the Chinese government have been trying to sabotage their efforts. “Let’s keep it going!” said Occupy Central, a civil disobedience group, in a Twitter post reporting the tally.
Mainland authorities have made no secret of their disdain for the campaign. They have called the referendum “illegal and invalid” and an “outright challenge to the Basic Law” the foundational document of Hong Kong’s governance since its return in 1997 to Chinese rule.
In the week before the scheduled start of the referendum, a website developed with local universities to accept online votes received billions of hits in an apparent denial-of-service cyber-attack. The independent Chinese-language newspaper Apple Daily, which has given extensive coverage to Occupy Central, was also taken down by cyber-attacks in the run-up to the referendum.
The Chinese government has promised to allow the selection of Hong Kong’s next leader, in 2017, through universal suffrage, but has ruled out public nomination for candidates and insisted that only candidates who “love China” should be eligible. The Occupy Central group plans to mobilise thousands to stage a mass sit-in on the streets of the city’s financial district if Beijing does not allow voters to have genuine choice among candidates.
In a recent editorial —pegged to a violent protest at Hong Kong’s main government offices Friday by 200 villagers angered over plans to bulldoze their homes—the city’s security chief predicted similar violence and disorder on a large scale if Occupy Central’s sit-in plans come to fruition. This follows the education chief’s stern warnings that participation in civil disobedience activities could cause “consequences” for teachers and students. A pro-Beijing group, “Silent Majority”, has released a bilingual video warning, with ominous music and dramatic graphics, of mass destruction and possible deaths if Occupy Central protests go ahead.
All this tumult comes a week after the release of a white paper asserting Beijing’s control over Hong Kong enraged many residents. In addition to ten days of online voting, the referendum includes a full day of in-person voting on Sunday at 15 polling stations scattered across Hong Kong, with another 10 stations open on June 29. Organisers say that the physical polling stations can handle a maximum of 70,000 voters each day.
This highlights the importance of the alleged interference with the online voting system. “If less people are able to vote, we will lose a lot of our bargaining power,” said Occupy Central member Edward Chin, a hedge fund manager who heads the group’s finance division.
Faced with powerful opponents, the democracy activists are turning to old-fashioned strategies. The former head bishop of the city, 82-year-old Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, has led a 7-day “Walk for Universal Suffrage” to raise awareness about the referendum while in the evenings, bankers and celebrities have joined activists to sing protest songs on crowded city streets. It remains unclear whether the surge at the polls means the public will continue to support the Occupy Central movement. What does seem clear is that if Beijing is to be moved by the results, it will be in the direction of hardening its line.
“No plot by a so-called ‘civil disobedience movement’ to force the central government to make concessions on principles and on its bottom line stands any chance of success,” said an unnamed official in the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, according to a report by the state-run China News Service.