More than 700,000 people have cast their ballot in an unofficial Hong Kong referendum on democratic reform, a poll that continues this week, and which the Chinese government has denounced as an "illegal farce." The high turnout – seven times what organizers initially predicted – proves the democratic aspirations of Hong Kongers are authentic and widespread and must be taken seriously in the leadup to the selection of the city's next leader in 2017.
That's exactly what Occupy Central, the local pro-democracy movement that organized the 10-day vote, set out to accomplish. And while there is nothing binding about the referendum, there is nothing illegal about it either. Since 1997, when Britain transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to China, residents have enjoyed freedom of speech, assembly, the rule of law by an independent judiciary, and a good measure of self-government. That partial autonomy was enshrined under a principle of "one country, two systems."
The Occupy movement wants Hong Kong's carefully managed quasi-democracy to become a full-fledged democracy in 2017 – which is what was promised at the time of the handover. Beijing, however, remains fearful of threats to China's one-party rule. It has promised to allow the selection of Hong Kong's next leader through universal suffrage, but insists that, among other things, only candidates who "love China" should be eligible. Democracy in the city's legislature is limited, to prevent majority rule. The Occupy movement's online poll asks participants to imagine a better future, and to choose among three possible methods of voting for Hong Kong's next leader in 2017. Each option is a variation of calling on the public to be able to nominate the candidates in 2017.
The high turnout for the referendum appears to have caught Beijing off guard: "However many people take part in Hong Kong's illegal public vote, there will never be as many as 1.3 billion," the headline in the state-run newspaper Global Times announced on Monday. That may be true. But equally so is the fact that the more the Chinese government rails against the referendum, the more Hong Kong residents appear motivated to agitate for democracy, using the most basic of all democratic tools: the ballot box.