A Million Sign Hong Kong Anti-Occupy Petition as Democracy Fight Heats Up

Last month, amid growing concern that Beijing may renege on a 2007 promise to allow universal suffrage in the 2017 election of the Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, the State Council Information Office issued a white paper reasserting control over the territory and insisting that “loving the country is the basic political requirement for Hong Kong’s administrators.” Later in June, pro-democracy movement Occupy Central With Love and Peace organized an unofficial civic referendum, in which the vast majority of nearly 800,000 participants voted for one of three options allowing public nomination of candidates. The mock poll riled Beijing—media bans in the mainland limited coverage while official newspapers declared it “illegal” and “a joke.” The loosely formed Occupy Central group’s mission has been based on a promise to stage a protest in the city’s financial center. While the sit-in has yet to take place, Occupy founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting recently made clear that this is still the goal if Beijing doesn’t give universal suffrage the green light, and HK legislators endorsed the plan as a “last resort.” Over the summer a counter campaign was launched by the group Silent Majority, who published a video warning that an Occupy Central protest would “kill the city.”  Last week, the New York Times reported on a new monthlong petition from the pro-Beijing Alliance for Peace and Democracy campaign hoping to outdo the success of Occupy’s unofficial poll:

A campaign aiming to deter a mass protest by those who favor a more direct election of Hong Kong’s top leader collected 380,000 signatures in its first two days. That puts it on a path to challenge the more than 700,000 votes of support the Occupy Central With Love and Peace movement received in an unofficial referendum last month.

Robert Chow, a spokesman for the new campaign, called the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, said that turnout since the signature collection began on Saturday had been overwhelming and that this would be a chance for Hong Kong’s “silent majority” to speak up against Occupy Central, which has threatened to stage a sit-in protest in the Central financial district if procedures to elect the next leader of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory are not revised to grant the public greater say over who can run.

“If we have 800,000 people, they would know that we beat them,” Mr. Chow, a former radio host and journalist, said in an interview on Sunday. “I think the silent majority rightly feels that their voices have been ignored by the mainstream media. And so when there’s a chance for them to come out, they couldn’t wait.” [Source]

Robert Chow was also spokesman for the Silent Majority video campaign. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the Alliance for Peace and Democracy is claiming to have already gathered nearly 1 million signatures, with three weeks left in the petition:

[…A] new group opposing Occupy Central, called the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, says it’s gathered more than 930,000 signatures since they began collecting them ten days ago on busy streets around Hong Kong. Each signature is submitted on a form that begins: “I oppose violence. I oppose Occupy Central.”

The new group has even received the endorsement of the city’s top leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

“We thought [turnout] would not be too bad, but we never expected 200,000 on the first day alone,” said the group’s spokesman, Robert Chow, in an interview with China Real Time. “It was a very, very pleasant surprise for us.”

Mr. Chow, a former Hong Kong radio host and journalist, says the anti-Occupy campaign’s early success is comes from the fact that Hong Kongers value peace and orderly conduct. “[Occupy Central] is a movement to take people as hostages to threaten China. If China doesn’t give them what they want, they will crucify us,” he said. “I think people really feel threatened by Occupy Central and what it really represents.”

[…] These striking numbers have been discounted by democracy activists, who point out that anyone –including tourists and minors — can sign. Last week, employees of a major Hong Kong public utilities company reported feeling pressure to sign the group’s anti-Occupy Central forms after department heads circulated them in the workplace. [Source]

While Chief Executive Leung has said he will sign the petition, several other politicians have done so already. A report from the South China Morning Post notes opposition to the petition, and describes the Alliance’s tactics to tally signatures by extracting them from often apolitical villagers in the outskirts of Hong Kong:

Chow described as a “world record” the 930,000 signatures opposing the civil disobedience movement collected so far, and said it reflected public opinion.

[…] But Occupy Central co-organiser Benny Tai Yiu-ting hit back yesterday, saying no matter how many people signed the petition, the demands of those seeking genuine universal suffrage could not be ignored.

[…] Meanwhile, the media descended on the three sleepy villages yesterday, as locals – some elderly, illiterate, or indifferent to politics – were invited to show their support for the alliance. Those who couldn’t sign their names were told an “X” would suffice. “I actually don’t know what the Occupy Central movement is about,” Sam Mun Tsai shopkeeper Cheung Wing-wah said after signing the petition. He nodded when asked by the campaigners if he wanted a “stable and prosperous Hong Kong”.

Others were motivated by patriotism. “We Hakka people oppose Occupy Central because we love our country and our home,” said Wong Bak-sing, 76, former village chief of Tai Mei Tuk.

But on Hong Kong Island, protesters targeted five of the alliance’s booths in Causeway Bay and Central. “They chanted slogans against us. Some people who wanted to sign the petition were scared off,” said alliance spokesman Stanley Ng Chau-pei.

Protester Leung Kam-shing said many of the people who were signing didn’t know what the petition was about. [Source]

Nonetheless, state-run Global Times has lauded the petition’s success:

A petition conducted by the Alliance for Peace and Democracy in Hong Kong opposing the recent Occupy Central campaign has now reached 930,000 signatures, as of Sunday night. It exceeded the 780,000-strong signatures collected by Hong Kong opposition groups endorsing their Occupy Central event. Leung Chun-ying, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, also announced to the public that he would sign a petition against Occupy Central.

This is the first time that a pro-establishment camp has launched such a high-profile poll on the streets, and the response it got overtook that of the pan-democracy camp, which had been claiming itself as the representative of Hong Kong public opinion.

Now the anti-Occupy Central campaign has revealed the pluralism of Hong Kong society, and dealt a heavy blow to these pan-democracy groups, which are obsessed with hi-jacking public opinion to pursue their own interests.

The immediate conclusion we can get from this poll is that the majority of Hongkongers are in favor of social stability. Many analysts also believe that the result of the so-called Occupy Central referendum in late June was exaggerated. Mainstream society has a mild position on the 2017 general election.

Some worry that Hong Kong might be mired in a social split as two groups will engage in a tit-for-tat struggle after the two signature campaigns. But we believe it is a necessary and timely effort to reveal the true image of Hong Kong’s public opinion. It will produce more positive influences than negative. [Source]

While public opinion may be split regarding the Occupy movement, a report from AP suggests that an increasing number Hong Kongers are indeed becoming more concerned over Beijing’s influence in the semiautonomous region. After outlining the concerns that gave rise to Occupy Central, the report compares the sentiment of Occupy founder Benny Tai and Silent Majority/Alliance for Peace and Democracy spokesman Robert Chow:

Benny Tai, a Hong Kong University law professor and one of the architects of Occupy Central, said the protest plan is a last-ditch resort to pressure the government in case all other tactics fail.

“It’s just playing a game of chicken,” said Tai. “They will not send the soldiers because it’s too big a statement for Beijing.”

Pro-Beijing lawmakers, who dominate the legislature, say stability is more important than democracy at all costs and warn of the damage they say such protests can exact on Hong Kong. In one sign of Beijing’s sensitivities to Hong Kong public opinion, the People’s Liberation Army stopped flashing its name across its building after the test run in June prompted worried headlines and online outcry.

If the city doesn’t get democracy, it would be a disappointment, “but life is full of disappointment,” says Robert Chow, spokesman for the group Silent Majority, which produced a video in June warning that paralyzing the downtown would be like “a knife in the heart” of Hong Kong. His group has started its own petition opposing the Occupy Central rallies. “It is not the best situation, but it is an acceptable situation for Hong Kong.”

“I think Beijing is doing a good job in China. And the Communist government in Beijing is doing all the right things about Hong Kong that it’s supposed to be doing,” Chow said. “Hong Kong is the proverbial rabbit who thinks he’s going to beat the tortoise forever, but they forget that’s not the tortoise. It’s a super tortoise that runs fast or faster.” […] [Source]

In June, Hong Kong’s “Big Four” accounting firms issued opposition to campaigns by Occupy Central, saying that mobilization in the Central district would harm the financial industry. After outlining the many causes of dissent in Hong Kong, the University of Hong Kong’s Toby Carroll says that the issue on display has as much to do with inequality as it does with differing democratic visions or mainland influence. From The Guardian:

Popular analyses of burgeoning political agitation around universal suffrage in Hong Kong often side-step an inconvenient reality – that the underlying story is not simply about relations with the mainland or concerns over its authoritarian ways, but rather about massive social inequality and the diminishing opportunities available to many Hong Kongers.

[…T]o unmask the real reasons behind dissent, it is also important to look at the city’s sky-high inequality rates, which are more about market dominance and governance than simply mainland influence.

[…] For the last couple of months, we have seen a steady who’s who of elite financial and economic figures instilling fear with respect to political mobilisations, one of which (Occupy Central) is yet to actually occupy any public space. The stunning stream of paranoid predictions has been revealing, although not nearly enough has been made of what this vocalising of concern reflects in terms of an irreconcilable division of interests.

[…] Elite interests and the interests of most Hong Kongers are perhaps more diametrically opposed now than ever before. The real concern of many of these elite figures is that people in Hong Kong will convert demands for increasing suffrage into robust demands for redistribution; that in the face of plenty, those with little or no positive prospects won’t stand for obscenely concentrated wealth, power and privilege anymore.

In this last respect, the alignment of Beijing’s political aspirations and those of a tiny but very powerful elite may prove a formidable pairing. However, given Hong Kong’s material conditions, political dissent will not easily be contained. [Source]

With tensions rising between pan-democracy and pro-Beijing campaigns—who share in a claimed goal of universal suffrage, but disagree on the means of achieving it—Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor published an article in the Wall Street Journal declaring optimism that universal suffrage will be given the go ahead by Beijing, outlining the history of electoral reform in Hong Kong leading up to 2017, and urging “cool heads, pragmatism and the spirit of compromise”:

Hong Kong this month took the first step in the procedure for constitutional reform. On July 15, Chief Executive C.Y. Leung submitted a report to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), saying that there is a need to amend the electoral method for the 2017 chief executive election with a view to attaining universal suffrage. This took into account the report of a five-month public consultation conducted by the Task Force on Constitutional Development that I chair.

Within a month or two, the NPCSC will inform the chief executive of its decision as to whether the Basic Law can be amended to implement universal suffrage in selecting the chief executive in 2017. We expect the NPCSC to give us the green light. On this basis, we plan to launch another public consultation on more specific suggestions with a view to forging a consensus for enabling legislation to be drafted and eventually put to legislators for a vote.

Looking ahead, I offer a few observations. First, it is worth noting that universal suffrage for the selection of the chief executive was not part of the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984. The declaration refers to the selection of the chief executive by election or through consultations held locally. […] [Source]