22 August 2019
(From left) League of Social Democrats' Leung Kwok-hung, People Power lawmaker Albert Chan Wai-yip and student leader Alex Chow discuss with protesters the idea of having a de-facto referendum. Photo: HKEJ
(From left) League of Social Democrats' Leung Kwok-hung, People Power lawmaker Albert Chan Wai-yip and student leader Alex Chow discuss with protesters the idea of having a de-facto referendum. Photo: HKEJ

Why de-facto referendum may not be such a good idea

Leaders of the pro-democracy Occupy movement should carry on with what they have started instead of diverting the people’s attention to a new form of struggle whose necessity and feasibility are both uncertain.

They should bear with the enormous sacrifices of the thousands of street protesters who continue to man the barricades in the protest areas in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, and the success of the street occupation in demonstrating the people’s demand for true universal suffrage need not be affirmed through a referendum.

The Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism, the two student groups leading the Occupy campaign, have proposed that the pan-democrat lawmakers resign en masse and use the by-elections as a de-facto referendum on the central government’s “Beijing nominates, Hong Kong people vote” electoral reform.

While there is yet no concrete plan on how to go about the referendum, the proposal immediately drew strong opposition from the government, which has seen a new opening to attack the pro-democracy movement.

The government said there’s no arrangement for a referendum in Hong Kong’s current political system. Any social activity under the name of referendum will have no legal effect. Such statement indicated that the government will not change its stance on electoral reform even if the voting results indicate an undeniable clamor for change.

Even from the ranks of the pan-democrats themselves, there is the view that there is no need to hold a by-election to test the latest public opinion on the central government’s electoral reform. After all, the pro-democracy lawmakers have already agreed among themselves to veto Beijing’s proposal in the Legislative Council next year.

The pro-democracy camp has 27 seats in Legco, thus holding a critical one-third of the 70 seats in the council that is needed to reject any bill submitted by the government.

Now, should by-elections be held in the five geographical constituencies, there is a chance that pro-Beijing candidates will win them all. But even if that happens, the pro-democracy camp will still be holding 22 seats.

But if all the seats occupied by the pro-democracy lawmakers are at stake, and the pro-Beijing camp is able to win them all in the by-election, then the political power of the pan-democratic camp will be eliminated and the government can approve all its controversial bills. 

This is not the first time that pan-democrats are using the strategy of forcing a de-facto referendum via a by-election. In 2010, five lawmakers did so and ran in by-elections in 2011 and 2012, but their campaign got the cold shoulder from the public as well as the pro-Beijing camp. As a result, less than a million voters cast their ballots for the pan-democratic candidates to return to Legco.

That should have taught the pan-democrats a lesson on tactics in pushing the city’s democratic development.

In supporting the de-facto referendum, the student leaders believe that such a strategy will bring the issue of genuine universal suffrage down to the level of the citizenry, providing a chance for local communities to discuss Beijing’s proposal and campaign against its rejection.

But the pro-Beijing loyalists have demonstrated their ability to mobilize the masses in support of the central government’s political reform proposal. Within one week, for example, they were able to gather two million signatures in favor of the anti-Occupy campaign and police operations to clear the occupied streets.

How will the two student groups be able to put up their own mass mobilization campaign to counter the pro-Beijing efforts without the support of the pan-democrat politicians? 

It is quite difficult for the protesters to pursue their street occupation for a long time, even if many of them are willing to stay on the streets for at least a year.

While the student leaders should be credited for their boldness in pushing for a de facto referendum, they should strike a balance between their idealistic thinking and the real world.

A better way for students to promote their ideas is by conducting small-group discussions in the community rather than engaging in mass mobilization. Slowly but surely, they will be able to spread their gospel of democracy in schools and community centers.

It will take a longer time, but the results will be certain.

– Contact us at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe