The war of words over Hong Kong's full democracy has got out of hand. Beijing has denounced Occupy Central's mock referendum as "an illegal farce". Anson Chan Fang On-sang has rounded on David Cameron's government for failing to live up to the Sino-British Joint Declaration by not defending the city's fight for full democracy. Both denunciations are hogwash.
You can ask the Hong Kong public to vote on anything you like. We do it all the time, over beauty pageants, Canto-pop hits, Japanese cartoon characters, our favourite movies, you name it. There is no law against it. Likewise, there is nothing in the statute books that bar people from asking others about their preferences for election methods, however unlikely, to choose our chief executive. The polling by Occupy Central, sometimes referred to as an "unofficial referendum", has zero legal force. So I am at a loss as to why mainland officials and the state-run Global Times have called it "an illegal farce". It is neither illegal nor farcical; actually, it is very serious. Anytime you have more than half a million Hong Kong voters doing something together it is a serious matter.
The government should worry about it as a strong expression of public opinion. Hypothetically, if the Hong Kong government decided to carry out a real referendum, it conceivably would be illegal under some interpretations of the Basic Law and the Chinese constitution. But even that would be debatable, as neither constitution mentions referendums. Under common law, if the law is silent about something, it's legal. On the mainland, it's the other way round.
Meanwhile, I don't see how the British are failing Hong Kong's democratic fight just because Chan says so. The Joint Declaration makes no mention of universal suffrage. But it helped create the Basic Law, which does refer to universal suffrage. It's over this text we ought to be fighting.
There is a good reason why the international community has far less justification to intervene in Hong Kong than, say, Poland under Soviet totalitarianism and South Africa under apartheid: we remain one of the freest, safest and wealthiest places on earth despite being lorded over by a communist state. That's what the Joint Declaration promised!