Leaders in Beijing and the Hong Kong government should not take the low turnout for the New Year's Day democracy march as a sign the campaign was losing steam, a leading mainland adviser on Hong Kong affairs said yesterday.
The lowest turnout for a January 1 march in years - whether the 30,000 claimed by organisers or the 11,000 estimated by police - masked the fact that calls for democracy had been growing, academics said.
An online poll on the day only reinforces that point, they said, with 94 per cent of the 62,000 who voted in the so-called civil referendum calling for a more democratic process to elect the chief executive.
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, though, dismissed the poll outcome as not relevant to the reform process.
She said the strong support found for including public nomination of chief executive candidates would not be of much help to the government's political reform consultation since there was no scope for referendums under Hong Kong's constitutional framework.
Lam's choice of words is likely to stoke the ire of activists who believe the government is not willing to engage in constructive dialogue on democracy.
Jiang Shigong , who advises the central government on Hong Kong policies, said: "The dialogue between pan-democrats and the central government is a long-standing issue which doesn't only hinge on how many people take to the streets."
Jiang, who is deputy director of Peking University's Centre for Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said the turnout at marches was only one of the factors Beijing took into account in assessing the sentiment of Hong Kong people.
Organisers of the march, from Victoria Park to Chater Garden, said 30,000 participated. The University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme estimated the turnout on Wednesday was 13,000 to 16,000
Last year, march organiser the Civil Human Rights Front put the turnout at 130,000. Police estimated 26,000 marched.
Lau Siu-kai, former head of government think-tank the Central Policy Unit, attributed the lower-than-expected turnout to "march fatigue" in the wake of recent large-scale protests over matters including the row over issuing free-to-air television licences.
Jiang said there was a risk of a growing rift between the city and Beijing if universal suffrage could not be attained. "Tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland would escalate," he said.
Some analysts feel those tensions could rise quickly if the more radical voices in the pan-democratic camp begin to overwhelm the moderates.
Jiang said it was crucial that talks between groups in the democracy debate intensified. But he said Beijing would never agree to public nominations for candidates for chief executive.
Additional reporting by Danny Mok