Hong Kong’s unofficial poll: The votes are in

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Analects, The Economist - ORGANISERS announced on Sunday night that nearly 800,000 Hong Kong people had voted in a 10-day unofficial referendum to pressure Beijing to allow “genuine” universal suffrage in the city’s next elections. A large majority, 88% of voters, said local lawmakers should veto any election reform bill that does not satisfy international democratic standards, according to the activist group Occupy Central. The exercise had withstood powerful and sophisticated cyber-attacks on its online polling platform as well as a steady stream of condemnations from central government officials and mainland state media.

Currently, the chief executive is picked by a committee of 1,200 members in a city with a population of 7.2m. The Chinese government has promised to allow the selection of Hong Kong’s next leader, in 2017, through universal suffrage, but has ruled out public nomination for candidates and insisted that only candidates who “love China” should be eligible. Occupy Central, an umbrella group of democracy activists, has threatened to stage mass protests paralysing the streets of the city’s main financial district if election plans do not meet international standards. It will now support a reform plan chosen by voters that calls for the public to be allowed directly to nominate candidates for the 2017 chief executive election. 

Commenting on the poll for the first time today, Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, who chairs the official public consultation on political reform, said the government would take note of the opinions. But a government spokesman said it is unlikely public nomination of candidates would be part of the official election reform proposal, scheduled to be released by the end of the year. Before taking office any chief executive elected in Hong Kong must also be formally appointed by Beijing.

The State Council’s release of a white paper on Hong Kong’s political future earlier this month had enraged and politicised many moderates in the city, who accused Beijing of having reneged on agreements in the Sino-British declaration that said Hong Kong would maintain its capitalist system for 50 years, until 2047. The report emphasised that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy “is not full autonomy” and the city’s ability to govern itself is subject to authorisation from the central leadership. On Friday, hundreds of Hong Kong lawyers marched in a protest against a section of the report that called judges “administrators” and said they have a “basic political requirement” to be patriotic. 

“Before the white paper, I didn’t support Occupy Central. But after the paper came out I thought it was important to take action,” said one voter. Another, a local lawyer, said: “The white paper alarmed me because it shows Beijing is no longer concerned about keeping up appearances. It seems perfectly content for the rest of the world to perceive ‘one country two systems’ as fraying at the edges if not unravelling completely.”

But not all in Hong Kong support the movement. In a joint statement published on Friday in the Hong Kong Economic Times, the “Big Four” accounting firms—PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, Deloitte and Ernst & Young—warned that the Occupy Central protest, if it were to go ahead, would bring “instability and chaos” to the markets and damage Hong Kong’s status as an international financial hub.

University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai, who started the movement in January 2013, said that a month earlier he had worried that few would vote in the group’s survey because among moderates, anything that directly opposes Beijing’s wishes tends to be seen as radical. Now, after a “much higher than expected” show of support at the polls, Tai said: “I still cannot be sure whether people in Hong Kong are prepared to directly confront China. At least now people are prepared to express their views and their disappointment clearly to Beijing”.

The poll ended as protesters were preparing to take to the streets Tuesday for an annual pro-democracy protest marking the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule on July 1st, 1997. This year, organisers expect more than half a million people to participate, potentially making it one of the city’s largest demonstrations in recent history, as levels of dissatisfaction with Beijing’s control of the territory reach new heights.

(Picture credit: Philippe Lopez/AFP)

Hong Kong referendum: Voting to vote

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Analects, The Economist - MORE than 400,000 votes were cast online Friday in the first day of an unofficial city-wide referendum on democratic reforms in Hong Kong, according to organisers, who have alleged that forces possibly connected to the Chinese government have been trying to sabotage their efforts. “Let’s keep it going!” said Occupy Central, a civil disobedience group, in a Twitter post reporting the tally. 

Mainland authorities have made no secret of their disdain for the campaign. They have called the referendum “illegal and invalid” and an “outright challenge to the Basic Law”  the foundational document of Hong Kong’s governance since its return in 1997 to Chinese rule.

In the week before the scheduled start of the referendum, a website developed with local universities to accept online votes received billions of hits in an apparent denial-of-service cyber-attack. The independent Chinese-language newspaper Apple Daily, which has given extensive coverage to Occupy Central, was also taken down by cyber-attacks in the run-up to the referendum. 

The Chinese government has promised to allow the selection of Hong Kong’s next leader, in 2017, through universal suffrage, but has ruled out public nomination for candidates and insisted that only candidates who “love China” should be eligible. The Occupy Central group plans to mobilise thousands to stage a mass sit-in on the streets of the city’s financial district if Beijing does not allow voters to have genuine choice among candidates.

In a recent editorial —pegged to a violent protest at Hong Kong’s main government offices Friday by 200 villagers angered over plans to bulldoze their homes—the city’s security chief predicted similar violence and disorder on a large scale if Occupy Central’s sit-in plans come to fruition. This follows the education chief’s stern warnings that participation in civil disobedience activities could cause “consequences” for teachers and students. A pro-Beijing group, “Silent Majority”, has released a bilingual video warning, with ominous music and dramatic graphics, of mass destruction and possible deaths if Occupy Central protests go ahead. 

All this tumult comes a week after the release of a white paper asserting Beijing’s control over Hong Kong enraged many residents. In addition to ten days of online voting, the referendum includes a full day of in-person voting on Sunday at 15 polling stations scattered across Hong Kong, with another 10 stations open on June 29. Organisers say that the physical polling stations can handle a maximum of 70,000 voters each day.

This highlights the importance of the alleged interference with the online voting system. “If less people are able to vote, we will lose a lot of our bargaining power,” said Occupy Central member Edward Chin, a hedge fund manager who heads the group’s finance division. 

Faced with powerful opponents, the democracy activists are turning to old-fashioned strategies. The former head bishop of the city, 82-year-old Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, has led a 7-day “Walk for Universal Suffrage” to raise awareness about the referendum while in the evenings, bankers and celebrities have joined activists to sing protest songs on crowded city streets. It remains unclear whether the surge at the polls means the public will continue to support the Occupy Central movement. What does seem clear is that if Beijing is to be moved by the results, it will be in the direction of hardening its line.

“No plot by a so-called ‘civil disobedience movement’ to force the central government to make concessions on principles and on its bottom line stands any chance of success,” said an unnamed official in the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, according to a report by the state-run China News Service.

Hong Kong’s politics: No paper tiger

Local artists bite photo copies of the white paper "One country, two systems" to simbolize people's speech has been disregarded and to urge people to vote in an unofficial referendum in Hong Kong

Analects, The Economist - PEOPLE in Hong Kong have responded with alarm, and some defiance, to a white paper issued by China’s leaders about the city’s political future. In rallies outside Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong on June 11th, politicians and protesters burned copies of the report and accused officials of treating the city’s constitution “like toilet paper”.

Legislators accused Beijing of reneging on its treaty obligations under the 1984 Sino-British declaration, signed between Margaret Thatcher and Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang, to make Hong Kong a semi-autonomous region of China. The agreement said Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy and maintain its capitalist system for a period of 50 years until 2047; and many of the city’s social and political freedoms (such as being able to protest against the Communist Party) have indeed been retained.

But the white paper stressed that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy “is not full autonomy” and the city’s ability to run its local affairs comes solely from the authorisation of the central leadership. It also says that Hong Kong residents hold “too many wrong views” with regard to the “one country, two systems” principle that governs the territory’s relationship with Beijing. The white paper’s suggestion to “above all be patriotic” has grated with many who object to equating patriotism with support for the Communist Party. The report also provoked the ire of the city’s judiciary for suggesting that judges have a “basic political requirement” to love the country. The Hong Kong Bar Association hit back with a statement warning that imposing political tests on judges would undermine Hong Kong’s rule of law.

Some protesters see a silver lining. Coming days after tens of thousands of people held a candlelit vigil to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and weeks before an annual pro-democracy march on July 1st, many observers say the white paper may prompt bickering local politicians to work together and motivate the public to participate in pro-democracy demonstrations. “We should thank Beijing for adding fuel to the fire,” said Benny Tai, one of the leaders of Occupy Central, a protest group. It has threatened to rally thousands of protesters to paralyse the city’s financial centre if the electoral proposal that the Hong Kong government is scheduled to release by the end of the year does not meet international standards.  On June 22nd Occupy Central will hold an informal city-wide referendum asking citizens to vote for their preferred type of electoral reform.

The chief executive of Hong Kong (a city of 7m people) is currently picked by a committee of 1,200 people. The Chinese government has promised to allow the selection of Hong Kong’s next leader, in 2017, through universal suffrage, but insists it has no obligation to allow an open nominating process. Many in Hong Kong believe that limits will be imposed on who is able to stand.

The bluntness of the Chinese government report has led some to suspect that leaders in Beijing are deliberately provoking dissent in order to justify a crackdown. Zhou Nan, a former head of the party’s liaison office in Hong Kong, has called the Occupy Central movement “illegal” and said the People’s Liberation Army could intervene if the planned protests escalated into riots. Foreign communities in the territory have also expressed concern, with some chambers of commerce taking out adverts in local Hong Kong newspapers urging the Occupy Central protesters to back down. That seems unlikely, and the city looks set for a long, hot summer of political dispute and angry protest.

Bitcoin in Hong Kong: Still different

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The Economist, print edition – INSIDE the world’s first Bitcoin store in Hong Kong, a visitor from Tokyo hands over a wad of thousand-dollar bills and waits for a clerk to process the transaction on a laptop. Moments later, a notification on his phone shows that bitcoins have been added to his “digital wallet”, one more transaction in a city that has become a regional hub for the crypto-currency.

Entrepreneurs in Hong Kong are scrambling to offer new services for bitcoin investors and enthusiasts in the region, despite a dip in confidence after the collapse of Mt Gox, a Japanese online exchange. The former British territory’s status has been enhanced by mainland China making it hard for the Bitcoin business—banning financial institutions from dealing in bitcoins and closing the bank accounts of online trading platforms.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, continues to be run under the “one country, two systems” set-up, agreed before it was handed back from British to Chinese sovereignty. So it has its own monetary authority and its own British-style legal system. A slew of startups are racing to lay out a network of Bitcoin ATM machines (where you pay money in to obtain bitcoins) and to open exchanges for online buying and selling,  while a handful of bricks-and-mortar businesses  are starting to accept payments in bitcoins.

As in so many areas, straightforward regulations and high-quality local talent have been the key to Hong Kong’s early success. Promising ventures have found no shortage of capital in the city. Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong tycoon and Asia’s richest man, was an early investor in BitPay, a Bitcoin payment technology.

Still, the industry is experiencing growing pains, too. Two of the city’s first Bitcoin ATMs stopped working soon after being set up in March. Aurélian Menant, a former investment banker who left his job last year to start Gatecoin, a digital-currencies exchange website, waited nine months for his company to be granted a licence as a money-service operator.

Yet in spite of the teething problems, many observers believe Hong Kong’s transparent legal framework and its position on China’s doorstep can make it a leading global centre for Bitcoin, just as it has been for many other commodities. Authorities in the city have made their position clear. John Tsang, Hong Kong’s financial secretary, told a room of teenagers recently: “Bitcoin is not a currency. Just like your armour in World of Warcraft, since we don’t regulate those, we won’t be regulating Bitcoin.”  In addition, any assets gained from the buying and selling of bitcoins are subject to the city’s attractive low flat-tax rate.

Some think the key for Bitcoin startups is to attract capital from flush mainland Chinese investors. The problem for David Shin, a Hong Kong banker who launched Cryptomex, a Bitcoin crowdfunding investment platform, is that investors in China “like to hoard their bitcoins”. Mr Shin hopes his venture could coax them to invest in startups, and that those businesses would in turn improve the security of transactions and earn digital currencies wider legitimacy.

Where the Flame Still Burns

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DESPITE choking heat, a record number of more than 180,000 people gathered in Hong Kong tonight, according to organisers, for the annual candlelit vigil to remember people killed when the Chinese armed forces suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Participants filled six football pitches and spilled onto the streets surrounding Victoria Park to urge China to respect human rights and overturn its denunciation of the pro-democracy movement as a “counter-revolutionary event”.

Hong Kong, a former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, is the only place on Chinese soil where large public commemorations of the Tiananmen massacre take place; elsewhere memorials of the June 4th crackdown remain strictly forbidden.

The mood seemed more solemn than in recent years. A sea of people dressed in the traditional mourning colours of white and black held small white candles. The entire crowd bowed as a ceremonial funeral procession marched toward a large gravestone temporarily erected in the middle of the park. Then a torch was lit and organisers led the crowd in the shouting of slogans, including: “Vindicate June 4th, fight to the end.”

“When the rest of China is silenced, Hong Kong can light a candle in protest against the Communist Party,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which has organised the vigil since 1990.

Some participants worry that Hong Kong is losing interest in seeking redress. The proportion of respondents who agreed with the statement “The Beijing students did the right thing” fell to 48% this year from 54% a year ago, according to a poll by Hong Kong University. Only 56% of residents want the central government to overturn its official stance that a counterrevolutionary rebellion had threatened the nation, which is seven percentage points fewer than a year ago.

Older participants in the crowd expressed anxiety that the younger generation who had not experienced the 1989 events first hand would not care about preserving its memory. But in the University of Hong Kong poll, support for Tiananmen activists was strongest among those under 30. Dennis Yip, a member of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said his classmates are “taking up the torch of what Beijing students started 25 years ago”.

Outside Victoria Park, a pro-establishment group staged a counter-demonstration in support of the 1989 crackdown. The group, Voice of Loving Hong Kong, showed a video questioning the student movement and urging viewers to forget about the past. The group refused to talk to journalists, and was protected by a dozen police officers and metal barricades after arrests were made earlier in the evening. It was unclear who was arrested.

Mak Yin-ting, who covered the 1989 protests in Beijing for the Hong Kong Daily News, said that her worries 25 years ago have now been realised. She said press freedom has taken a battering, citing a rash of attacks on journalists and an increase in pressure on news organisations from Beijing. A report by the Hong Kong Journalists Association said Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong has called newspaper editors to complain about their political coverage. In April the Chinese government summoned Hong Kong media executives to Beijing to issue them a directive to play an “active, positive role” in voicing opposition to the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement.

The Occupy Central movement is threatening to rally thousands of protesters to paralyse the city’s financial centre if the local government does not offer an electoral reform proposal in time for elections in 2017, when Beijing has promised to allow the selection of Hong Kong’s leader through universal suffrage. The Chinese government insists it has no obligation to allow an open nominating process.

The vigil tonight ended with the singing of a Cantonese version of “Do You Hear The People Sing”, a popular protest song from the musical Les Misérables. As the crowd exited the park, protesters said they were already gearing up for another demonstrationin two days to mark the second anniversary of the death of Li Wangyang, a Tiananmen dissident and labour-rights activist. Li had spent 21 years in prison for his role in the pro-democracy protests and was found hanged in his hospital room in Hunan.

This time, protesters will have a more direct target: the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong. It looks as if the small city will continue to be a thorn in the side of the motherland.

The Economist 

In the shadow of Tank Man: Interview with photographer Jeff Widener

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Twenty-five years ago the Chinese military crushed student protests in Beijing. Hours later a man stopped a column of tanks and U. S. photographer Jeff Widener captured the moment.

Widener almost missed the most important shot of his career. Now one of the most recognizable images in the world, Widener’s Tank Man photograph shows a man stopping a column of tanks the morning after the Chinese military suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 by force.

Then a photographer for the Associated Press, Widener, 57, is in Hong Kong this week to attend events commemorating the 25th anniversary of the crackdown. Talking to dpa in Hong Kong he explains how a student had to smuggle the picture in his underwear to save it from government seizure.

dpa: Why did you come to Hong Kong for the vigil this year ?

Widener: I had never attended the vigil before, I had only seen it in the news and know they’re quite big. I’m not here to be an activist, I’m here more for personal reasons. It had a major impact on my life, both personally and professionally. I doubt I’ll be back for the 50th anniversary. So this is a last hurrah for me as a participant in this story. After this I’ll concentrate on new work and new projects. All my body of work has been in the shadow of Tank Man. I have a love-hate relationship with it!

dpa: How did you end up covering the Tiananmen protests in Beijing? 

Widener: I was hired by AP in October 1987 and I was 32 years old. Before that I was out of a job and had been bouncing between working for news wires and newspapers. And then I became Southeast Asia picture editor for AP in charge of photographers for the Southeast Asia bureaus, but the story in Beijing was so big that they pulled me in.

dpa: What was it like to work on the night of June 4, 1989, before the military crackdown began?

Widener: On the night of June 4, I was photographing an incident on Chang’an Avenue. There was a burning of an armored car. The protesters had already killed a soldier. The mob scene was going crazy, people were pulling my camera, I was afraid I’d be ripped apart, and I had already been hit in the head with a rock and had a concussion. I held my passport above my head, and I said “American, American!”. One of the student leaders came to me and calmed the crowd down, then told me to take photographs of the dead soldier.

dpa: Can you explain why you almost missed the Tank Man photo? 

Widener: So on June 5, I had a concussion and also a bad case of the flu. I was set up on the balcony of the Beijing Hotel, and when I saw a man walk out on the street I was annoyed because I thought he would ruin my composition. I had seen the row of tanks coming but he had stopped them so I thought I was too far away to get the shot.

Before that, in the lobby they were using electric cattle prods on journalists who wouldn’t give up their equipment. Kirk Martsen, a college student, helped me get up to his room and then he helped me deliver the film hidden in his underwear riding his bicycle to the US embassy, which then passed it on to the AP office to publish around the world.

dpa: Why do you call the photograph a “miracle”?

Widener: I had only taken three shots. I sat down, and thought that I blew it, that I didn’t get the photo. In fact two pictures were completely fuzzy and blurry and then there was one sharp one in the middle. I thought, how did this happen? It was as if the hand of God came down and steadied my arm. It was a miracle.

Jeff’s website is www.jeffwidener.com.

Photo credit: Peter Eng

dpa

Remembering Tiananmen Square

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HONG Kong is braced for what may be the most politically charged protest since May 21st, 1989, when 1.5m people flooded the streets. That was eight years before the city returned to Chinese rule, one day after authorities declared martial law in Beijing, and two weeks before Chinese troops unleashed deadly violence, on June 4th, to clear Tiananmen Square of demonstrators. A sprawling Hong Kong park named after Queen Victoria has since become the site of a yearly candlelight vigil; elsewhere in China commemoration of the June 4th crackdown remains strictly forbidden.

Organisers predict a record turnout of more than 150,000 participants will fill the park’s six football pitches Wednesday evening for the 25th anniversary of the crackdown. This will follow a smaller demonstration (pictured above) held in the city on June 1st. On June 4th a pro-Beijing group will, for the first time, stage a counter rally outside the gates of Victoria Park. That group, Voice of Loving Hong Kong, plans to show a video calling on people to question the 1989 student movement and forget about the past. Chairman Patrick Ko Tat-pun said (in Chinese) the central government was “wise” for its “decisive actions” to restore social order and “protect national security”. 

All this reflects a shift in the established political rhythms of the city, which has increasingly become a focal point for dissent in China as a whole. Pro-establishment and pro-democracy groups are coming into direct conflict, while concerns about the erosion of civil liberties are on the rise.

“It used to be the case where pro-government groups would celebrate in the morning and pro-democracy groups would march in the afternoon. Now we see mutual respect in decline and a spate of incidents showing that Beijing suffers an acute sense of insecurity,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.

Mr Cheng was the main organiser of a conference about the Tiananmen events of 1989 held over the weekend. Many were outraged when it emerged that a Taiwanese academic wasdenied entry into the city to speak at the conference. Professor Tseng Chien-yuan of Chung Hua University was told upon arrival at the Hong Kong airport that Beijing had cancelled his travel permit. Mr Tseng said that despite being neither a politician nor a security threat, he is now banned from the city. 

In April a former Tiananmen Square activist was refused entry to Hong Kong to attend the opening of the world’s first museum dedicated to the June 4 crackdown. Prominent activists have been barred entry before, but the banning from Hong Kong of academics is highly unusual.

“This does not bode well for Hong Kong. The invisible hand of Beijing has become tangible now,” said Ching Cheong, a founding member of Independent Commentators Association, a free speech advocacy group.    

Earlier this year, a brutal knife attack on Kevin Lau Chun-to, a former chief editor of a local Chinese-language newspaper known for its investigative reporting, shocked Hong Kong and international observers alike. Under Mr Lau, the newspaper had taken part in a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that revealed the offshore holdings of some of China’s elite, including stakes in companies owned by relatives of Xi Jinping, China’s president. Reporters Without Borders, an international NGO, has warnedthat China’s growing economic weight is allowing it to extend its influence over Hong Kong media. 

Meanwhile, Beijing has ruled out public nominations for candidates for the chief executive election in 2017. Beijing has promised to allow for selection of Hong Kong’s leader through universal suffrage for the first time by that date, but insists it has no obligation to allow an open nominating process. A group called Occupy Central is threatening to rally thousands of protesters to paralyse the city’s financial centre if the local government does not offer up an electoral reform proposal that would meet international standards.

But Occupy Central leader Benny Tai said he wouldn’t provoke Beijing by officially supporting Wednesday’s June 4th events. The organisers of the yearly candlelight vigil in Victoria Park have long stressed Hong Kong’s responsibility to speak on behalf of those who are silenced in mainland China. Yet as the events this week and in the upcoming months may show, people in Hong Kong seem increasingly anxious about losing their own voices.

Published on The Economist’s Analects blog

Image: Huge protests in Hong Kong on May 21, 1989

 

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