Posted: June 24, 2014
… thanks to the last minute “White Paper” boost that summarily dismissed all of Hong Kong’s electoral reform proposals in deference to Beijing’s mandate (June 12 post). Organizers of the Occupy Central civil disobedience campaign are breathing sighs of relief, at least for now. Their campaign is about promoting local initiatives and Beijing’s White Paper intervention was designed to discourage all such ideas by telling Hong Kongers in no uncertain terms who has the authority to make those kinds of decisions and what they should be. But after a trouble-plagued launch that reached global proportions, organizers could proclaim success at the end of the very first day of their online mock referendum.
It had been one headache after another since the May 6 Deliberation Day exercise that provoked a new round of infighting among pro-democracy politicians and almost derailed the whole campaign (May 15, 28 posts). One reason Professors Benny Tai Yiu-ting, Chan Kin-man, and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming could claim success was not just the turnout itself but their prior expectations. So discouraged were they after May 6 that they had set themselves the lowest possible bar for success. They said that if turnout did not reach at least 100,000 for their online citywide plebiscite, then scheduled for June 20-22, the three of them would have to contemplate defeat. They planned to retreat for a period of quiet contemplation and soul searching as to why their leadership had failed.
Instead, one day into the exercise, they could announce that 400,000 people had come forward. With another week yet to go, they were contemplating not failure but a huge success. By Sunday evening, June 22, the turnout was over 700,000.
The ultimate Occupy Central aim is for 10,000 people to occupy the streets of Hong Kong’s central business district if the current political reform cycle ends in another sterile foot-dragging exercise like all those before it. The idea is intended as an open challenge to the government with the looming threat of civil disobedience. But before that final act of defiance occurs, if it does, the Occupy Central campaign is first and foremost a citizens’ initiative aimed at providing some much-needed hands-on experience in democratic institution-building.
The campaign schedule was carefully planned and announced months ago. It entails a series of Deliberation Days and public opinion polls while the government and the community consider various electoral reform options and proposals. First up for consideration is the promise of new arrangements that are supposed to introduce Hong Kong’s first ever universal suffrage election for Chief Executive in 2017.
The current mock referendum follows Occupy Central’s May 6 Deliberation Day when activists gathered in several locations around town to debate and decide on the best of 15 electoral reform proposals submitted by interested citizens and parties for consideration by the government and public. The organizers had, generously, selected 15 of the many proposals as being the most democratic and in accord with international standards. The plan was to take the best three of the 15, as chosen by Occupy Central supporters on May 6, and submit them to the general public for consideration on June 20-22.
Public participation has been made possible through the online services of the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program (HKU POP), financed by fund raising and contributions from those who can. Robert Chung Ting-yiu who heads the program is a willing participant.
These neat plans began to unravel on the evening of May 6 as the results of the day’s deliberations were being tallied. Some 2,500 Occupy Central supporters participated but a great hue and cry went up immediately. The exercise had been “hijacked” by radicals complained the critics. This was because the top three short-listed proposals that made the cut all contained elements of civic or public nomination 【公民提名】… whereby the general public would be allowed to have its say in the nominating process. Beijing officials have repeatedly rejected this idea, their Hong Kong government counterparts have followed in tandem, and so have Hong Kong’s pro-establishment pro-Beijing partisans. And so, too, have many moderate democrats … for reasons they have yet to explain fully and clearly.
Naturally, since the youngsters … secondary school and college students … had been paying the most attention and worked the hardest, their proposal came in first. Second place went to the radical political group People Power. But also making the cut on May 6, in third place, was the proposal from the all-party Alliance for True Democracy (ATD) coalition.
The adults and moderates should have known better but they initially behaved the worst and complained the loudest. In fact, there was no need since their perspectives were accommodated in the ATD’s proposal. This is a three-in-one combination that was the result of Professor Joseph Cheng’s painstaking year-long mediation effort. It took so long because they wanted to accommodate the inclinations of all pan-democrats. The ATD’s proposal thus combines public nomination, and/or political party nomination, and/or the most conservative unreformed type of Nominating Committee nomination that Beijing says must be the sole nominating authority (Jan. 13, 2014 post).
It was at this point that Tai, Chan, and Chu announced they were thinking about calling it a day if turnout for their June 20-22 referendum did not reach at least 100,000 people who were interested enough to choose one of the three proposals that made the May 6 cut.
The “three guys,” as they are called, were perhaps thinking back to this year’s January First rally when turnout was way down on expectations … something between 11,000 and 30,000. At that time, Occupy Central and HKU POP organized a trial run and 62,000 people took part by participating in an online survey. They answered a few simple questions and indicated overwhelming support for a more representative nominating committee, no prior official vetting of candidates, and public participation in the nominating process (Jan. 6, 2014 post). If Occupy Central couldn’t even match its preliminary trial-run achievement, after six more months of constant work, then the exercise must surely be regarded as a failure.
But besides offering to retreat (which evoked scorn from pro-democracy radicals and glee among pro-Beijing partisans who have kept up a steady barrage of attacks on the whole campaign), Occupy Central announced some adjustments in the original plan.
ACCOMMODATING THE CRITICS
Organizers rejected a suggestion to use all 15 proposals from the May 6 list in the June 20-22 exercise, but changes were made. The list order on the “ballot” screen layout was rearranged. The ATD’s proposal was put in first place and the students’ plan was third, reversing the May 6 order. An additional choice to abstain was added for people who had not been following the intricacies of the Chief Executive election proposals debate or did not like any of the three choices. But especially for these voters, another alternative was added with the question: should any proposal be vetoed by the Legislative Council that does not meet international standards and allow voters genuine choice among candidates?
It was the best they could do to placate critics and hopefully generate public interest … until June 10 when Beijing sent its White Paper “gift.” This provided the ultimate in-your-face provocation because it aimed to scuttle all options for popular reform and demanded official vetting of candidates as well. It offered the perfect get-out-the-vote rallying cry and would probably have been enough in itself to provoke voters … without a massive hacking attack that succeeded in shutting down the HKU POP site on June 13, just as pre-registration was getting underway. Technicians concluded that there must have been thousands of computers involved at the attack end and that it must have been mainland directed.*
If people had not been paying attention, they were now and Occupy Central took full advantage with daily full-page ads courtesy of Apple Daily that also suffered a hack attack. None deterred, its favorite cartoonist designed an ad for the New York Times featuring a fist holding a red rose smashing through the White Paper that became the symbol of the exercise (NYT, June 17, Apple, June 22). Street theater activists had more fun though. They immediately produced a new prop: little white-skinned plastic pigs … a play on the Chinese/Cantonese words for White Paper 【白皮書】that can also sound like “white-skinned pig.”
The hack attack was contained and most important for turnout: voting was extended by a full week until June 29, with more polling stations and computer terminals added for people without smartphone apps. Last Sunday, HKU POP teams set up shop on busy street corners all around town providing smartphone service for passersby.
Hong Kong Identity Card numbers had to be used and the system was designed, said Robert Chung, to override double voting as a safeguard against “ballot stuffing.” By 10 p.m. Sunday, June 22, some 48,000 people had checked in to vote at 15 polling stations with computer terminals and HKU POP teams to supervise. Smartphone electronic voters numbered 645,000. The final “net” as opposed to “gross” tally will likely be adjusted downward once voting ends on June 29 and duplicates plus invalid votes are deleted. There were reports of some people deliberately voting twice, once electronically and then again at a polling station because they didn’t trust the smartphones not to swallow up their votes. There were also reports of loyalists boasting about having compromised the system by successfully voting with false IDs.
So the “three guys” plus Robert Chung … mild-mannered moderate intellectuals all … have inspired an unexpected new surge of political energy. Now they must decide how best to direct it toward some positive end. The immediate next step is simple: they are urging everyone who voted to challenge their loyalist accusers by turning out in person for the July First anniversary protest march. If that can be accomplished, turnout will match the original July 1, 2003 protest that taught Hong Kongers the value of feet-on-the-ground when ballot boxes are not allowed. In 2003, the powers-that-be retreated before an upsurge of angry public opinion and shelved the Beijing-mandated Article 23 national political security legislation. Occupy Central is hoping it can happen again.
*The cybersecurity firm CloudFlare that’s keeping the lines open reports that the attacks are coming in from everywhere (Apple, June 21, South China Morning Post, June 25). So either Beijing’s cyber tentacles now extend into and out of every country in the whole wide world … or everyone out there is trying to deprive little Hong Kong of its right to agitate for political reform.