Vote for Hong Kong – on the streets and online

In 2014, the citizens of Hong Kong staged an unofficial civil referendum in protest against the Beijing authorities’ attempts to undermine its independence. As Rebecca Wong reports, the majority of the votes were cast via a voting app on mobile phones.

Hong Kong’s extraordinary unofficial referendum in 2014 had a long pre-history.

Under the Treaty of Nanjing, signed in 1842, China had ceded Hong Kong to Britian. On July 1st 1997, Hong Kong saw an end to its British colonial history and was handed back to China. Even before 1997, the ‘One Country, Two System’ principle was implemented by the Chinese Communist party in Beijing. The principle was a pioneer political concept advanced by Deng Xiaoping. It declared that Hong Kong would remain a distinct identity from Mainland China. Allowing Hong Kong to enjoy an independent common law legal system, independent judiciary, freedom of press and information and its respected civil service system. In essence, the central Chinese government promised a hands off approach allowing Hong Kong to enjoy a high degree of autonomy to administer her own affairs.

For all the fears of  interference from Beijing, the years following 1997 were reasonably calm. Things took a dramatic turn in 2003 when Mrs. Regina Ip, then Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security proposed the Article 23, an anti-subversion law.  In essence, the legalisation forbids any branch of an organisation, which is banned by the central government to operate in Hong Kong and all rights of investigation in Hong Kong rest with the central government. Moreover, expressing or failing to report any form of anti-subversion oral, written or electronic speech is regarded as a criminal offence under Article 23.  Freedom of expression was thus directly affected.

People in Hong Kong responded to the Article 23 proposal with unprecedented anger and half a million of them took to the streets on July 1st 2003. Ip resigned from her post and went to Stanford University for postgraduate studies and Article 23 was not passed.  Since 2003, July 1st had been the day for annual pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong. Ironically enough, July 1st is also a public holiday to celebrate Hong Kong’s reunification Mainland China.

Freedom of expression in Hong Kong was significantly impaired under the leadership of Leung Chun-ying, also known as CY Leung. Leung assumed office as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong on July 1st 2012.  Favoured by the central government, he was elected by a small group of 689 electors largely loyal to Beijing and ‘689’ became his uncomplimentary nickname.

Under Leung’s leadership, Hong Kong began to saw progressively more influences from Beijing, including the increasingly restrictions on Hong Kong’s freedom of expression. A number of affairs highlighted the heightened distrust between the people of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong government. One of which was the proposal to implement ‘so-called’ Chinese national education, a compulsory education programme to promote a stronger sense of identification as Mainland Chinese among local Hong Kong school children. Scholarism, a Hong Kong student activist group, organised protests outside the Hong Kong government headquarters and was joined by 40,000 irritated Hong Kongers, many of them are schoolchildren and teachers.

The freedom of Hong Kong’s media industry was also gravely affected under Leung’s government.  Li Wei-ling, an outspoken radio host was reportedly to been forced out of her post by Leung due to her outspoken criticisms towards the Hong Kong government.  A number of international corporations, such as HSBC and Standard Chartered pulled advertisements from Apple Daily, a newspaper known for its tendency to criticize China.  Early in 2014, the brutal stabbing of Kevin Lau, the ex-editor of Ming Pao Newspaper, known for its critical reporting and for their recent collaboration with International Consortium of Independent Journalists to produce a series of sensational stories about offshore companies maintained by Mainland officials.

In June 2014, people of Hong Kong were outraged by two political events. First, the unprecedented abuse of power by the Hong Kong government under the passing of the North – East New Territories project. Government officials supporting this project included Development Minister Paul Chan was discovered to have family members who owned over 15,000 square feet of farmland in this region and would stood to gain around 12.4 million  (£ 960000) Hong Kong dollars under this development plan. Moreover, the chairperson of the Finance Committee, which passed this development project, Ng Leung Sing, was the non-executive director of the telecommunication company, a subsidiary of one of the key property developers, his ties with the developer was a clear conflict of interests.  Given its close proximity to Mainland China, the North-East project is believed to be aimed at dissolving the borders between Hong Kong and China, making it one of the first attempts in the geographical integration between Hong Kong and Mainland China.

The second issue was the white paper published by Beijing in June 2014. In essence, the white paper stated that under the principle of ‘One Country, Two System’, the power of administration in Hong Kong affairs by people of Hong Kong had been granted by the central government. It also stressed that patriotism is a basic requirement for Hong Kong’s administrators, which includes the chief executive, bureaucrats and judges. As a result, the Hong Kong Bar Association made a number of strong opposing statements and the legal profession organised a Silent March rally. This series of events highlighted the urgency and importance of a universal suffrage voting system for the next Hong Kong Chief Executive due in 2017.

Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an associate professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong, then initiated the ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’ campaign, a nonviolent occupation protest for universal suffrage in Hong Kong (Central is the main business district of Hong Kong).  This was not the first unofficial civil referendum ran in Hong Kong. The 322 civil referendum for the general public to vote for their Chief Executive in Hong Kong in 2012, before Leung was elected by a selected committee.

The pro-China camp wanted a screening process before the 2017 election in which candidates will be chosen by the government before allowing eligible electorate to vote.   Tai and his team rejected this proposal and calls for a public nomination of candidates.  Failing to meet the international definition of universal suffrage, the Occupy movement promised to take over Central in late 2014.

Before the launching the Occupy Central movement, another side to Tai’s campaign is asking the people of Hong Kong to vote under an unofficial city referendum which took place between June 20th – June 29th 2014.  The poll asked two simple questions: which proposal for universal suffrage would you like to see implemented in Hong Kong and should the legislative council adopts an universal suffrage system if it does not abide with the international definition?

Hong Kong citizens over the age of 18 were eligible to vote. Voters casted their votes through the official website, polling stations on the streets and via the official mobile app available on the IOS system supported by IPhones or the Android system supported by other smartphone system. Information on how to access the voting system was widely available online, and on the streets of Hong Kong, during the period leading to the official opening of the voting poll.  Online bloggers also designed posters for the civil referendum, which were widely shared on the Internet across social media websites. Celebrities, ex politicians and other public figures actively urged people to cast their votes during this period.

Official voting last for nine days. Yet before the voting opened on June 20, the website was faced with one of the “may well be the most sophisticated” ever seen as described by the US digital security firm, CloudFlare. Despite the cyber attack, more than 500,000 Hong Kongers casted their votes in just two days, with a majority of voting traffic received from the mobile voting apps on smart phones. Attacks continued through the 10 day voting period, cardboard voting boxes were confiscated by Chinese customs and the Chinese government censored online traces of the voting.

Apart from voting online and on smart phone applications, over 20 polling stations were also opened across Hong Kong and a record of 798,000 Hong Kong have casted their votes, more than a fifth of the city’s eligible voters. Official records show that majority of the votes were reported to have been casted via the voting app on mobile phones, with an average of 45,000 votes casted via mobile phones per day. Since the voting system only recognizes eligible voters from Hong Kong, it was predicted that the number of votes would be greater if Hong Kong citizens from overseas were allowed to cast their votes. Nonetheless, individual organisations headed by Hong Kong citizens all over the world share their support for the electoral reform and the voting system, including the Hong Kong overseas alliance founded by Hong Kong citizens in London. People from Mainland China also expressed their support for Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy, independent groups in Shenzhen propose for a civil movement to Occupy Shenzhen as a show of support for the organisers of the civil referendum and citizens of Hunan held banners with supportive messages for the people of Hong Kong.

Despite the impressive outturn, the government of Hong Kong responded coldly by stating that the, ‘civil referendum does not exist in the HKSAR’s Basic Law and our domestic legislation and hence has no legal effect.’ The response of the Hong Kong government further provoked the anger of people in Hong Kong. As a result, an estimated total of 510,000 participated in the annual July 1st protest, the largest number since 2003. 511 people were arrested after the protest for obstructing traffic in Central.

In Summer 2014, the future of Hong Kong remained uncertain. Some argued that the Civil referendum has casted pressure over the Hong Kong government to satisfy the demands of pro-democracy activists and to avoid further disruptive protests. Others argued that it would only provoke Beijing to take a stronger stance on Hong Kong’s governance.  Whatever the future holds, two things are for certain. First, the Internet and mobile devices have successfully modernized a traditional voting system. The vast majority of votes in Hong Kong’s unofficial referendum were casted on mobile apps on smartphones. Second, a very large number of people had once again been active both to exercise the right to express one’s opinion and to defend it.

Rebecca Wong is a Visiting Fellow at the Department of Public Policy, City University of Hong Kong.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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