Hong Kong activists push democracy through polling

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

Hong Kong’s 3.5 million registered voters are making a statement that they want ballot choices in 2017. China’s Communist Party is making a statement it wants to control those choices.

Those entrenched positions are clashing this week as Hong Kong democracy advocates conclude an informal poll on the ground rules for the 2017 election to determine the territory’s next chief executive. Beijing has strongly condemned the grass-roots referendum, calling it “illegal” and a “farce.” But the more the Chinese government fulminates, the more Hong Kong residents line up to register their wishes, both online and at ballot boxes.

As of Monday, more than 700,000 registered voters had participated, mostly by using smartphone apps or the Internet. That’s seven times the number that Occupy Central, the group organizing the poll, originally expected. On Sunday, organizers also opened more than a dozen polling stations across Hong Kong. Media photographers showed long lines at some of the stations, even though there are still six days left for people to vote.

On Monday, an editorial in the Global Times, a Beijing-based mouthpiece for China’s Communist Party, lashed out at the referendum, calling it a destabilizing invention that was “tinged with mincing ludicrousness.”

“As a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong can’t launch any referendum without the authority of the central government,” the editorial said. “The country would fall into tumult if all regions conducted similar referendums.”

The tumult in question involves how Hong Kong will select candidates who will vie to be its chief executive in 2017. The vote will be the first to pick Hong Kong’s leader since China regained sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997, promising partial autonomy under a principle of “one country, two systems.”

Hong Kong’s Basic Law requires that “a broadly representative committee,” acting “in accordance with democratic procedures,” select candidates to go before voters in 2017.

Democracy advocates fear that, under this vague language, the committee will be stacked to ensure that only Beijing’s hand-picked candidates are on the ballot. Advocates are pressing for public nominations of candidates, a demand that Beijing has rejected as illegal.

To drive that point home, the Chinese central government on June 10 issued a “white paper” on Hong Kong, asserting that the region’s autonomy is completely at the discretion of Beijing. While many in Hong Kong recognize that political reality, the timing of the white paper was viewed as an implicit threat to punish Hong Kong should it continue push for political reforms.

That threat may be backfiring on Beijing. Angered at apparent bullying, popular opinion appears to be swinging toward Occupy Central. That group, formed by academics and an array of pro-democracy groups, has threatened to “occupy” the central part of Hong Kong’s business district if China doesn’t agree to an election system that meets international standards.

Even activists who aren’t fully supportive of Occupy Central’s tactics say that China seems oblivious to how its actions are being viewed in Hong Kong. “The most effective way for Beijing to calm resistance is to assert less control, not more,” Michael C. Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in a commentary in the South China Morning Post earlier this month.

Adding to the intrigue was a cyber attack last week that threatened to overload and shut down the website Occupy Central was using for the polling, popvote.hk. A cyber-security firm called CloudFlare described the “distributed denial of service” attack as one of the largest it had ever encountered, but its programmers ultimately were able to repel it.

A more successful cyber attack was delivered last week against Apple Daily, a Chinese-language news service in Hong Kong that has been strongly pro-democratic. Its servers were overloaded and the site was shut down for several hours June 18, the news service reported. Although the source of the attack could not be confirmed, the company’s chief executive officer blamed it on Beijing.

Occupy Central launched its poll Friday night and will continue it through Sunday, hopeful that more than 1 million voters will send a strong message to Beijing and the Hong Kong government, which also has rejected the referendum’s legitimacy.

In its editorial Monday, the state-run Global Times warned that activists already had gone too far in their street tactics aimed at influencing the Chinese government. “They should refrain from a gambling mentality by believing they could create overwhelming pressure on Beijing,” the editorial stated.

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