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China

Hong Kong referendum reflects 'people want democracy'

Over 700,000 Hong Kongers have cast their ballots in an unofficial referendum on democratic reform which Beijing calls a farce. Analyst Joseph Cheng tells DW Beijing fears the vote may set a precedent for other regions.

More than 700,000 people have voted in an unofficial electoral reform poll which allows Hong Kong residents to choose between three options on how the elections for the post of the chief executive in 2017 should be carried out - each of which would allow voters to choose candidates for the top job. Beijing has promised direct elections in 2017, but has ruled out allowing voters to choose which candidates can stand.

Participation in the unofficial voting - which began on Friday and is set to last until June 29 - has beaten all expectations despite a major cyberattack that the organizers, the Occupy Central movement, have blamed on Beijing. A state-run Chinese newspaper reacted on Monday, June 23, by slamming the referendum as an "illegal farce" that was "tinged with mincing ludicrousness."

Joseph Cheng, Chair Professor of Political Science at the City University of Hong Kong says in a DW interview, Beijing may well choose to ignore the Hong Kong (HK) people's demand for democracy, but adds that this would come at a price as it would be extremely difficult for the city's future government to achieve effective governance of a polarized society.

DW: What is the purpose of this referendum?

The referendum is a platform for the Hong Kong people to articulate their views on political reform. There is a distrust of the HK government as to its objectivity in accepting public opinion. The pro-democracy movement would like to use this platform to demonstrate Hong Konger's support of a democratic electoral system for the election of the chief executive in 2017.

Assistants wait at polling station during a civil referendum held by Occupy Central in Hong Kong June 22, 2014.

"The symbolic effect of the poll is simply that the Hong Kong people want to articulate their views," says Cheng

There is a real fear that the Chinese authorities may well allow the Hong Kong people to enjoy universal suffrage, but Beijing also likes to control the list of candidates. This is why Hong Kongers would like to exercise the right to a civic nomination, or nomination by one percent of the electorate, to ensure that the people will have a meaningful choice and the vote will be genuinely competitive.

Why is the referendum unofficial?

Because the poll is organized by the civic group Occupy Central. Chinese authorities are extremely sensitive to the idea of a referendum and very worried about such a vote being carried out in Taiwan, which may lead to a declaration of independence. They are also sensitive that the idea of holding a referendum may have a certain impact on volatile regions on the mainland such as Tibet and Xinjiang. This is why Beijing considers the idea to be very dangerous.

Over 700,000 Hong Kongers out of five million eligible voters have already cast their ballots. What is your view on the turnout?

It is an incredibly high turnout which has exceeded the expectations of the organizers who had set a minimum target of 100,000 voters. Let's keep in mind that, before the voting, the "Occupy Central" campaign had stated that a turnout of some 300,000 voters would be "quite satisfactory." Now the poll is on its way to surpass the 800,000 mark by June 29.

The symbolic effect is simply that the Hong Kong people want to articulate their views, want to say to Beijing and to the whole world that they want democracy, a genuinely competitive and democratic electoral system, and that they cannot accept the kind of electoral proposal put forward by Chinese authorities.

The turnout also indicates that the people of Hong Kong resent the pressure exerted by Beijing. Before the referendum, the Chinese State Council's Information Office issued a white paper on June 9 emphasizing the one country model and stressing that whatever power Hong Kong has, it comes from Beijing. At the same time, the document failed to mention both the two systems model and the rights of Hong Kong people.

The online voting system for the unofficial referendum has reportedly witnessed one of the largest denial-of-service attacks in history. According to the South China Morning Post newspaper, more than 40 percent of the attacks against the website came from computers registered to mainland firms in HK. Who could be behind the attacks?

There are suspicions that Beijing supporters are behind the attack, but there is no evidence, so we cannot determine which parties are engaging in this kind of attack.

Pro-democracy activists worry that Beijing will backtrack on its promise of universal suffrage. What are their fears based on?

The kind of proposal offered by the pro-Beijing group provides us with an important hint as to what is in the mind of Chinese authorities, namely: "Universal suffrage, yes!, but only from an approved list of candidates." There is also a strong suspicion that, given the nature of the Chinese Communist Party, it will not allow a scenario in which a pro-democracy candidate becomes elected chief executive.

What impact could the outcome of the vote have on the city's pro-democratic aspirations?

Obviously, we don't know as yet, but the general suspicion remains that it is rather difficult to persuade Beijing at the moment. One can only hope that Chinese authorities realize the consequences of rejecting the clearly articulated demand of Hong Kongers.

It appears that if Beijing decides to deny democracy to Hong Kongers, it may well be able to do so, but then the HK government will lose legitimacy in the eyes of many of the city's residents, leading to a very polarized society.

It will be extremely difficult for the Hong Kong government to achieve effective governance under such conditions. At the same time, Beijing's policy towards Taiwan will also be bankrupt. So the general scenario is that if Beijing chooses to ignore this, they may well be able to impose its system on Hong Kong, but then the price will be high.

Voters line up outside a polling station during an unofficial referendum in Hong Kong June 22, 2014.

Cheng: "The high turnout also indicates that the people of Hong Kong resent the pressure exerted by Beijing"

How would Beijing react to potential massive pro-democracy demonstrations at the heart of Hong Kong?

The Occupy Central movement intends to hold a peaceful rally, but obviously the idea is considered dangerous by Beijing and it is likely that there will be a crackdown. This would be a very sad situation for the city and I believe all parties involved would lose from such a scenario.

The problem is that Beijing could view the demonstrations as a challenge to its authority and fear that this may have an impact on other people in China, something which would be considered dangerous from an authoritarian regime's perspective.

Joseph Cheng is Chair Professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong. He has been the founding editor of the Hong Kong Journal of Social Sciences and The Journal of Comparative Asian Development, as well as the founding President of the Asian Studies Association of Hong Kong.