‘Referendum’ is ‘irrelevant’ say ‘leaders’

If it wasn’t Beijing’s white paper on ‘One Country Two Systems’ that did it, it was the large-scale attacks on the websites of the on-line PopVote system and the highly supportive Next Media. The result: over 700,000 votes were cast over the weekend in Hong Kong’s ‘civil referendum’ on constitutional reform. Before the white paper and the cyber-attacks, organizers of the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement were crossing their fingers and hoping for 100,000.

It’s this participation rate – not the number of votes per option on the ballot – that matters. In the days leading up to the exercise, Beijing officials attempted to prove it was irrelevant, not to say ‘illegal’, by mouth-frothing excessively about it. Now they are trying way too hard to insist that on-line ballot-stuffing occurred. (In practice, casting a vote on-line was enough of a pain in the rear, especially if you’re the sort of person who can’t remember his phone number, to ensure that few would try swamping the system with fake votes. If any enthusiastic teens went to the trouble of using multiple ID card numbers and phone numbers to vote more than once, they would have got bored pretty quickly.)

All the frantic bleating from Beijing’s officials and supporters shows that someone thinks the exercise was quite the opposite of ‘irrelevant’. Although hardly as dramatic as the July 1, 2003 march, it is a gauge of people’s interest in and demand for universal suffrage, and their dislike of the ranting and near-bullying. The 700,000 figure means mostly non-activist, non-radical plain folks took part. Having participated, these people will most likely be more aware of what follows, especially the heavily guided public consultation process and the plans for a civil disobedience campaign in the city’s business district. It increases pressure on Beijing and its local proxies to deliver some hope of improved governance following the 2017 Chief Executive election. You can tell it does by how much they squirm and insist it doesn’t.

This can’t change Beijing’s bottom line. The Communist one-party system finds a one-man-one-vote process for the mayor of a city of 7 million scary enough. Rigging the composition of the ballot is a given and non-negotiable. The not-so subliminal message of the white paper was that the Chinese government would sooner abolish the whole ‘two-system’ deal than yield any control over who gets on the ballot.

As it happens, Occupy Central mismanaged the primary stage of the referendum in such a way as to let activists keep relatively moderate options off the ballot. That makes Beijing’s refusal to acknowledge the referendum result easier for everyone. If Chinese leaders feel a need later on to make a minor, symbolic concession in the reform package, it would be a no-face-loss thing to do.

The main point is that Beijing should get the message more than ever that something has to change.

The Standard’s ‘Mary Ma’ editorial notes that Commerce Secretary Greg So has been called to Beijing. It could be a reaction to Occupy Central…

I wouldn’t be surprised if they tighten the screws – especially where it hurts Hong Kong’s economy – by substantially cutting down on the number of mainland visitors.

Wow – more civil referendums, please.


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