Occupy Central

Turnout for Occupy Central vote a stirring show of Hong Kong defiance

Anson Chan says Hong Kong's determination to preserve its freedoms, as reflected in the massive turnout for the Occupy Central vote, demonstrates how far the community has matured - despite what Beijing might think

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 June, 2014, 5:25pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 2:35am

As Occupy Central's civil referendum draws to a close, we can afford to pause and reflect on the old maxim that a week is a long time in politics. When the poll opened, on June 20, the organisers were bracing themselves for a "damp squib" - a turnout possibly so low as to call into question the whole purpose of the exercise.

The reasons for gloom were clear. Successive opinion polls showed the majority of those canvassed do not support Occupy Central. A further body of opinion felt cheated because all three proposals put forward in the referendum include the right for ordinary registered voters to nominate candidates for election to the post of chief executive, something that has been firmly ruled out by the Hong Kong and central governments because it potentially bypasses the role of the nominating committee mandated by Article 45 of the Basic Law.

In the event, the response of the Hong Kong public to the referendum has exceeded the organisers' wildest expectations. At the time of writing, more than 740,000 people have cast votes and there are still two days to run; more than 20 polling stations throughout the territory will open on Sunday.

Why have so many decided to vote in the referendum? Quite simply, people are angry.

They are fed up with the constant stream of threatening and insulting rhetoric emanating from Beijing officials and state-controlled media. They are fed up with blatant distortions of facts, such as the assertion that the referendum is illegal, which it patently isn't.

And they are fed up with the double standards practised by pro-Beijing elements and, sadly, by our own government officials, who readily denounce the illegality of Occupy Central - which hasn't happened and may never happen - but somehow turn a blind eye to the self-confessed abuse of the voting system by some pro-China groups, not to mention the shocking scale of the cyberattacks on the referendum's online voting platform and on Apple Daily and Next Media servers. These attacks - which IT experts have characterised as "world class" both in scale and sophistication - temporarily took down not just the targeted websites, but also those of other businesses that have no connection with the Occupy Central campaign.

Most of all, people are angry that the State Council chose this moment to issue a white paper that redefines "one country, two systems", and makes clear that whatever autonomy Hong Kong enjoys is for the central government to give and take away at its pleasure. This move was clearly intended to dissuade Hong Kong people from voting, but has spectacularly backfired. A crucial question is whether the SAR government was consulted prior to the paper's issue and if not, why not?

To add fuel to the flames, during his recent visit to the city, Chen Zuoer, a former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, observed that Hong Kong people have failed to shake off their mentality as colonial subjects, adding that reunification with the motherland "involves adaptation in people's value system and outlook on life".

Chen could not be more wrong. Hong Kong people's determination to preserve cherished freedoms, core values and their way of life are a clear demonstration of just how far our community has moved on and matured since the end of colonial rule.

As chief secretary in the years immediately before and after the return of sovereignty to China, I canvassed long and hard for international support for the Joint Declaration. I strongly resent the implication that I am "confused or lopsided" in my understanding of "one country, two systems" and the Basic Law.

Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy, other than in matters of foreign and defence affairs, together with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, are explicitly safeguarded by the declaration - an internationally binding treaty that is lodged with the United Nations. It is a complete distortion for the white paper to assert that this autonomy "is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorisation by the central leadership".

British Prime Minister David Cameron should have firmly reminded Premier Li Keqiang of this fact during the latter's recent visit to London. Worryingly, however, the UK government seems far more concerned with promoting its trade relations with China than with fulfilling its responsibilities to Hong Kong people as a co-signatory of the Joint Declaration.

Meanwhile, our chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, has finally spoken up to distance himself from some of the more extreme comments in China's state- controlled media. Unfortunately, the goodwill his comments might have generated has been undermined by his assertion that there are no grounds for people to call for universal suffrage to be compatible with international standards.

He seems to have forgotten that Article 26 of the Basic Law provides for Hong Kong permanent residents to have the right to vote and to stand for election, and that Article 39 applies to the Hong Kong SAR the rights contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights for citizens to vote and be elected on the basis of universal and equal suffrage.

The bottom line is that unless the government comes up with a package of proposals that is fair, offers people real choice, and does not place unreasonable restrictions on a citizen's right to stand for election - in other words, a proposal that does meet international standards - the defiance shown by the public this week will look like very small beer!

Anson Chan, a former chief secretary, is convenor of Hong Kong 2020