Expert opinion: Hong Kong protestors should use referendum results for transition, not revolution

Dr Lingling Mao, senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the School of Arts and Humanities, discusses the reasons behind Hong Kong's unofficial referendum on electing its next chief executive by universal suffrage.

Dr Lingling Mao, senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the School of Arts and Humanities, discusses the reasons behind Hong Kong's unofficial referendum on electing its next chief executive by universal suffrage.

Since China's takeover, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong has traditionally been elected by a committee of 1,200 members, but under pressure to materialise the promise of 'Hong Kong is governed by Hong Kong people', Beijing has pledged a public vote by 2017 (the next election year), but with an added condition: all candidates have to be approved beforehand.

This clause has displeased pro-democratic groups in Hong Kong, who organised a nine-day referendum in which 792,808 Hong Kong voters participated, 42% of whom supported a public vote with open nomination of candidates.

Although people in Hong Kong have an increasing role in choosing their leader compared to colonial times, intellectuals and pro-democratic groups feel that what Beijing has practiced is, at best, lukewarm democracy, the undercurrent of which is the encroaching control over local media and politics.

For ordinary Hong Kong citizens daily encounters with people from the mainland have exacerbated tensions: an economic and cultural invasion. One fourth of tourists are from mainland China. They travel to Hong Kong to do their luxury shopping, snatching up designer goods and property with equal fervour, sending prices sky high. The rich even come to give birth, in order for their children to obtain Hong Kong residency.

However Hong Kong's simmering discontent was pushed to boiling point when Beijing recently published a White Paper reiterating the 'One Country, Two Systems' policy, i.e. Hong Kong's autonomy is only what Beijing is willing to give. This led to a 172,000 person demonstration following the referendum, which was staged on the 1 July; the 17th anniversary of the handover and what should have been a day of celebration.

Since 1991, Beijing has issued 87 White Papers towards Human Rights and foreign policies, but this is the first White Paper to address Hong Kong. The timing of this could be linked to initial referendum discussions which took place in June, the 100,000-strong crowd that gathered in Hong Kong to commemorate the 25th Tiananmen Square protests or the recent Diaoyu island and South China sea disputes.

Beijing has pledged a public vote by 2017, but with an added condition: all candidates have to be approved beforehand.

Hong Kong's economic stability since its takeover may have been the vital factor that has given Beijing the confidence to act in this way. Its GDP growth was predicted to be 3-4% in 2014, with an unemployment rate of only 3.1% since the late 1990s. In comparison, America, the world's largest economy, has a GDP growth of 1% in the first quarter of 2014, and an unemployment rate of 6.3%. However, economic stability and political stability goes hand to hand, so Beijing has to play carefully in order to maintain the solidarity of Hong Kong's economic foundation.

Although the referendum was dismissed by Beijing as unofficial, illegal and invalid, the 780,000 turnout has nevertheless piqued the interest of many parties. In a democratic world, election and poll are deemed the most important indexes for gauging public opinion. Hong Kong had 3,470,000 registered voters in the 2012 census, in other words, 22.5% of voters took part in the referendum, with 9.45% supporting the open nomination.

However, upon closer inspection, things seem more blurred. Out of these 792,808 votes, more than 700,000 were received online, with only 70,000 in poll booths. How vigorously observed were the online voting criteria? Were pseudonym names allowed? If so, multiple voting is a possibility. In addition, how many booth voters may have already voted online? Was there an age limit for voters? What was the constitution of these voting members?

There are two sides here: Hong Kong youth's revolutionary fervour for full democracy, against Beijing's authoritarian policy.

Statistics are unavailable, but one could perhaps obtain an impression from the 1 July demonstrations. The majority of the marchers were young people, who took to the streets chanting 'this Hong Kong is not the Hong Kong we know of, this Hong Kong is not the Hong Kong we are proud of.' Some marchers were as young as 17, who had not even been born when the takeover from Britain happened. What indeed is the Hong Kong that they know of?

There are two sides here: Hong Kong youth's revolutionary fervour for full democracy, against Beijing's authoritarian policy. Hong Kong's desire to rinse clean all authoritarian attachments is unrealistic, as it would be too wide a river for Beijing to cross

The peaceful demonstration this 1 July was something that would never have been allowed to happen in the mainland, which illuminates Beijing's views on Hong Kong – a showcase of China's capability to allow alternatives. Therefore, the meaningfulness of the referendum needs to be taken full advantage of in negotiation with Beijing for transition, rather than a revolution.

Dr Lingling Mao
Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies
School of Arts and Humanities

A version of this article has also appeared on The Conversation.

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Expert opinion: Hong Kong protestors should use referendum results for transition, not revolution

Published on 9 July 2014
  • Category: Press office; School of Arts and Humanities

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