Hong Kongers advocate for universal suffrage

A protester on Hong Kong with a sign that reads “Citizens Nominate." (Flickr/Leung Ching Yau Alex)

A pro-democracy protester in Hong Kong with a sign that reads “Citizens Nominate.” (Flickr/Leung Ching Yau Alex)

On January 1, over 10,000 Hong Kongers started their new year by marching on downtown, taking the streets in the city’s annual rally to demand true universal suffrage by 2017. Although the reported number of participants was down from previous New Year’s Day demonstrations, Wednesday’s event — along with the October protest against the denial of an over-the-air TV license to a new proposed station — indicate that there still exists a vocal segment of Hong Kongers who reject mainland China’s attempts to integrate the city, despite growing links between the two. Further, it suggested that Hong Kong citizens are not cowed by recent crackdowns on freedom of speech in China.

While Hong Kong is technically part of the People’s Republic of China — due to a joint agreement with the British during the handover of the former colony back to mainland China in 1997 — Chinese authorities accord the island special privileges, including a freer media and its own political system. However, in recent years, Hong Kong activists have charged that Beijing has unduly influenced the appointment and election of city officials, particularly the current mayor (known as the chief executive) CY Leung, who is thought to be a lackey of the mainland Communist Party. Leung is so disliked that when a protester reportedly threw a toy wolf made by Ikea at him, Hong Kongers mobbed stores to buy the trinket, turning the toy into a protest symbol.

Currently, the chief executive is elected by an electoral college of 1,200 Hong Kong citizens who are supposed to represent a cross-section of the city’s populace. In actuality, representatives sympathetic to Beijing are overrepresented in the group, and when mainland authorities threw their support behind Leung in 2012, allegiances shifted away from the front-runner to the underdog Leung, leading him to victory.

Due to previous pressure by Hong Kong politicians and democracy activists, Beijing has implied that it will offer universal suffrage to all Hong Kong citizens for the next chief executive election in 2017. However, recent statements coming from mainland officials appeared to indicate that Beijing would prefer to have a strong say in determining who could be nominated as eligible to run for election — in effect filtering out unacceptable candidates. The chairman of the National People’s Congress Law Committee has gone so far as to say that any future head would have to love China.

Thus Wednesday’s march was a public reminder to mainland authorities that such restrictions would be unacceptable. A mock referendum organized by the University of Hong Kong and Occupy Central with Love and Peace was held, with 94 percent of voters in the exercise demanding that citizens have the right to nominate candidates for election.

Speakers also staged civil disobedience exercises, having the crowd practice lying down in the street in the event that future demonstrations require it. Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a constitutional law professor at the University of Hong Kong and one of the founders of Occupy Central, has previously advocated for civil disobedience and the blocking of downtown Hong Kong streets if democracy was not genuinely realized. “We need to equip ourselves for mass action,” Johnson Yeung, of Civil Human Rights Front told The Economist. Another activist, Audrey Eu of the Civic Party, said, “We’re foolish for being too obedient.”

At the moment, Hong Kong officials have offered to listen to citizen suggestions during a public consultation period, the first round concluding in May and the final one at the end of the year. With myriad options being proposed and considered for how to organize the 2017 election — some include expanding the pool of people who elect the nominating committee, expanding the nominating committee itself, or allowing direct nomination by citizens — the permutations can seem endless and confusing even for those up to date on Hong Kong politics.

Fortunately, the admirable website Design Democracy HK attempts to fill this knowledge void and offers a space for debate on the issue. On the site, which is in English and both Traditional and Simplified Chinese, a guide walks a user through the various proposals, allowing citizens to build their own preferred vision of how the 2017 election should be held: whether or not there should be a nominating committee; if so, how many should be on it; what the requirements should be for candidacy; and so on.

Once completed, a user can see what kind of models others have designed. While some of the responses to the prompts have consensus answers (as of today, over 80 percent prefer the general electorate nominate the candidates), others are more conflicted. For instance, of the models which included a nominating committee, responses were split about whether or not nominations should be made public or whether they should be done by secret ballot. Users can also watch videos of speakers with divergent views on questions like “Must the Chief Executive be Born in Hong Kong?” and make comments.

The site is an interesting technological solution to engaging Internet users in the debate over Hong Kongers’ right to vote. Amongst the criticisms of the New Year’s Day marches are that the tens of thousands which participate are a mere fraction of Hong Kong’s nearly four million eligible voters and there is very little genuine dialogue between those in favor of more direct elections and those with reservations. Counter demonstrators who lined the march route chanted pro-Beijing slogans while marchers booed them, hardly constructive communication.

Although the Design Democracy site has been lightly used thus far — with only 205 models submitted as of today — it will hopefully see expanded usage as the public consultation period heats up. The site will no doubt be criticized due to its association with Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s University of Hong Kong Law Department, which is the primary supporter of Design Democracy. But regardless of its affiliation, Design Democracy serves as a valuable space for those many hundreds of thousands more who may feel wary of taking to the streets — or perhaps don’t feel knowledgeable enough to do so just yet.

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