By Demetri Sevastopulo in Hong Kong
Hong Kong residents have cast more than half a million votes in an unofficial democracy referendum that the Chinese government in Beijing called “illegal”.
The Hong Kong government is drafting proposals to introduce universal suffrage in 2017, but pro-democracy groups worry that voters will be forced to pick a chief executive, the top political job, from a list of candidates vetted by Beijing.
Occupy Central, a group that has threatened to block a business district unless people are able to nominate candidates for the post, on Friday started a 10-day online referendum that lays out three proposals for universal suffrage.
The organisers said more than 554,000 people in the city of 7.1m had voted by Saturday evening. The referendum will continue until June 29 with physical polling stations opening on Sunday to provide people another way to register their vote.
The high online turnout, which could not be independently verified, will almost suddenly worry Beijing, which on Friday said “any form of so-called ‘referendum’ in Hong Kong would not have constitutional grounds, thus being illegal and invalid”. The organisers had originally set a goal of 100,000 votes.
Hong Kong is governed under the principle of “one country, two systems” agreed by Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher before Britain returned the territory to China in 1997. Under the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that took effect at handover, candidates for chief executive must be chosen “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee”.
Responding to the referendum on Friday, CY Leung, the current chief executive who is seen as being pro-Beijing, said the three options were all “against the Basic Law”.
Pro-democracy campaigners such as Anson Chan, the former number two official in Hong Kong, say the local government must do more to push back against efforts by China to deprive people of a genuine say in selecting their leader.
“We are not asking for the sun and the moon, we are not even asking for a set of proposals that is 100 per cent perfect – we know we won’t get that,” Mrs Chan said in an interview. “What we are asking for is a set of proposals that will give the voters genuine choice . . . what is the point of having ‘one man, one vote’ when you are presented with three puppets.”
The battle for the future of democracy in the city comes as residents worry about the influence of Beijing, particularly the sway it holds over many of the 1,200 people who nominate candidates for chief executive. Many of these are elites doing business in China who have much to lose from being seen to take an anti-China stance.
Ahead of the Occupy Central vote, Chan Kin-man, one of the organisers, said the computer network hosting the referendum had suffered a hacking attack, which was repeated on Friday.
“This is a social movement and we are facing a very strong enemy,” said Mr Chan.
The referendum comes just after Beijing issued its first white paper on Hong Kong since the handover in which it warned about the limits to autonomy.
Under “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong is provided a “high degree of autonomy”, except in the case of foreign and defence affairs, which remain the responsibility of Beijing.
Critics of the white paper said it suggested that judicial independence – one of the reasons that foreign companies feel comfortable doing business in Hong Kong – was under threat.
The Hong Kong Bar Association reacted by stressing that, under any interpretation, the Basic Law was clear that nobody could interfere with decisions made by courts and judges in Hong Kong.