Analects, The Economist – ORGANISERS announced on Sunday night that nearly 800,000 Hong Kong people had voted in a 10-day unofficial referendum to pressure Beijing to allow “genuine” universal suffrage in the city’s next elections. A large majority, 88% of voters, said local lawmakers should veto any election reform bill that does not satisfy international democratic standards, according to the activist group Occupy Central. The exercise had withstood powerful and sophisticated cyber-attacks on its online polling platform as well as a steady stream of condemnations from central government officials and mainland state media.
Currently, the chief executive is picked by a committee of 1,200 members in a city with a population of 7.2m. 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. Occupy Central, an umbrella group of democracy activists, has threatened to stage mass protests paralysing the streets of the city’s main financial district if election plans do not meet international standards. It will now support a reform plan chosen by voters that calls for the public to be allowed directly to nominate candidates for the 2017 chief executive election.
Commenting on the poll for the first time today, Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, who chairs the official public consultation on political reform, said the government would take note of the opinions. But a government spokesman said it is unlikely public nomination of candidates would be part of the official election reform proposal, scheduled to be released by the end of the year. Before taking office any chief executive elected in Hong Kong must also be formally appointed by Beijing.
The State Council’s release of a white paper on Hong Kong’s political future earlier this month had enraged and politicised many moderates in the city, who accused Beijing of having reneged on agreements in the Sino-British declaration that said Hong Kong would maintain its capitalist system for 50 years, until 2047. The report emphasised that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy “is not full autonomy” and the city’s ability to govern itself is subject to authorisation from the central leadership. On Friday, hundreds of Hong Kong lawyers marched in a protest against a section of the report that called judges “administrators” and said they have a “basic political requirement” to be patriotic.
“Before the white paper, I didn’t support Occupy Central. But after the paper came out I thought it was important to take action,” said one voter. Another, a local lawyer, said: “The white paper alarmed me because it shows Beijing is no longer concerned about keeping up appearances. It seems perfectly content for the rest of the world to perceive ‘one country two systems’ as fraying at the edges if not unravelling completely.”
But not all in Hong Kong support the movement. In a joint statement published on Friday in the Hong Kong Economic Times, the “Big Four” accounting firms—PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, Deloitte and Ernst & Young—warned that the Occupy Central protest, if it were to go ahead, would bring “instability and chaos” to the markets and damage Hong Kong’s status as an international financial hub.
University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai, who started the movement in January 2013, said that a month earlier he had worried that few would vote in the group’s survey because among moderates, anything that directly opposes Beijing’s wishes tends to be seen as radical. Now, after a “much higher than expected” show of support at the polls, Tai said: “I still cannot be sure whether people in Hong Kong are prepared to directly confront China. At least now people are prepared to express their views and their disappointment clearly to Beijing”.
The poll ended as protesters were preparing to take to the streets Tuesday for an annual pro-democracy protest marking the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule on July 1st, 1997. This year, organisers expect more than half a million people to participate, potentially making it one of the city’s largest demonstrations in recent history, as levels of dissatisfaction with Beijing’s control of the territory reach new heights.
(Picture credit: Philippe Lopez/AFP)