Nearly 800,000 voters participated in an unofficial “democracy referendum” in Hong Kong, organizers said Monday, in a boost to a pro-democracy movement that wants Beijing to allow the former British territory to nominate and elect its own chief executive.
The robust turnout – over 10 percent of Hong Kong’s population cast a vote either online, in person, or via mobile phone – is a signal that hundreds of thousands may turn out for an annual protest march on Tuesday, activists say. The July 1 march marks the anniversary of the date when London returned the territory to Beijing in 1997.
The referendum’s organizers, a group called Occupy Central for Peace and Love, have threatened for months to occupy Hong Kong’s downtown financial district, known as Central, if their demands for a transparent electoral process were not met. Although Occupy Central’s leaders have indicated that they won’t launch their occupation after the march on Tuesday, several affiliated student groups say that they may hold overnight vigils.
The protests could be the largest since half a million turned out to protest against a proposed national security law in 2003.
Occupy Central organizers had said beforehand that they'd be satisfied with 100,000 votes. The referendum far exceeded that, tapping into mounting concerns that Hong Kong’s freedoms are in jeopardy – fears sparked by creeping self-censorship, violent attacks on pro-democracy media, and especially by the recent release of a Beijing white paper affirming the mainland’s ultimate authority over the wealthy finance center.
In the early post-handover years “things were pretty much hands-off publicly, but over the years the people of Hong Kong now see Beijing directly getting involved, sometimes in very grassroots-level things,” says Francis Moriarty, a veteran journalist and 25-year Hong Kong observer.
Last week, the Hong Kong affiliates of four major accounting firms, Ernst & Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, and KPMG, published a half-page Chinese-language advertisement in the local press raising concerns about the threatened occupation of Central district.
Occupy Central with Love and Peace
In early 2013 a group known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) announced that it would organize 10,000 people for nonviolent civil disobedience to shut down Hong Kong’s financial district, known as Central, if the local government did not submit a proposal for genuine universal suffrage by July 1 of this year. The group shares a similar name, but different goals, from the Occupy movement that started on Wall Street in 2011.
In 1997 when London returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, a mini-constitution agreed upon by Beijing and London, called the Basic Law, granted Hong Kong political and economic autonomy, while deferring to Beijing in defense and foreign affairs.
Although Basic Law allows for universal suffrage to select the chief executive, that promise has yet to be delivered. The unpopular current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, is mockingly referred to by disgruntled locals, especially youth, by the nickname “689,” the number of people who voted him into office. The chief executive of this territory of 7.2 million is currently selected by a committee of political and business elites who are mostly sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party.
China tells Hong Kong it will allow universal suffrage for the next chief executive election in 2017, provided that it vets candidates, who must be “patriotic” – a subjective term that has raised local concerns of “fake democracy.” China is threatening to disallow universal suffrage in the election if Hongkongers reject a system in which Beijing selects the candidates.
Mr. Leung’s government has done little to satisfy OCLP’s demands for democracy, focusing more on playing up the dangers of Occupy Central becoming violent rather than working on a compromise which could avoid the planned civil disobedience.
White paper and self-censorship
In the referendum itself, voters are asked their opinions on two matters. The first question asks for a preference among three proposals for electing the next chief executive in 2017. The second question asks whether voters think Hong Kong’s legislature should veto a government proposal for the 2017 election if the proposal “cannot satisfy international standards allowing genuine choices by electors.”
Despite being a non-binding vote, the referendum and the threat of a shutdown of Hong Kong’s financial district on July 1 have provoked the control-obsessed Communist Party. The white paper issued by Beijing on June 10 said that Hong Kong’s autonomy is granted by the central government, not the Basic Law, suggesting that the rule of law that has enabled the territory to remain a global financial hub since the handover could be revoked at will.
Many in Hong Kong also fear the territory is drifting toward a censorship regime like that on China’s mainland, where on Tuesday the State Council Information Office in Beijing ordered all media outlets to find and delete all references to the current referendum, according to an order leaked to the University of California’s China Digital Times website.
“There’s definitely been a diminution of press freedom as it actually operates and an increase in self-censorship,” says Mr. Moriarty.
A study on self-censorship conducted recently by the Hong Kong Journalists Association shows that, of the respondents, some 30 percent have admitted they themselves have engaged in self-censorship, he added.
Pressure to not publish articles that anger Beijing has grown in the past two years. In 2013, an unknown driver rammed a stolen car into the home of Jimmy Lai, publisher of pro-democracy Apple Daily, leaving a hand axe and machete. Earlier this year Kevin Lau, the former editor of the prominent newspaper Ming Pao, was attacked by two men with cleavers. Mr. Lau barely survived.
The referendum is also battling cyber attacks. On June 13 the website popvote.hk launched preregistration and mock voting for the referendum, running smoothly for 30 hours before suffering what San Francisco-based internet service provider CloudFlare said was one of the largest distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks ever. During the DDoS attack, millions of requests per second were made to popvote.hk, overloading the site and causing it to cease functioning.
CloudFlare and two other firms were helping protect the website before the attack, but afterward only CloudFlare was willing to continue to assist the referendum, says Karie Pang at Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Program, which was hired by Occupy Central to manage the referendum. Beijing is widely suspected to be behind the attack, but no evidence of who the attacker is has been uncovered. Pro-Beijing media haveaccused CloudFlare of having CIA connections, which the company denies.
“CloudFlare has been really good to us, they know that this is a big event for Hong Kong, which is why they’ve stepped up their efforts in defending us from all those server attacks, and they have been successful,” she said, adding that the attacks on the site have yet to stop.
Hong Kong resident Wong Suk-wai, who voted in the referendum, said she thought a greater say for the people of Hong Kong in governmental affairs would improve the running of the territory.
“I don’t have big hopes for universal suffrage or democracy, but I feel that it’s certainly better than the current political system,” she says.
[Editor's note: This story was updated on June 30 after the release of the final polling data. The original version published June 27 is available here.]