Slow Progress for Democracy

First published: 02nd July 2014

Standing in a crowd, rain pouring down my face I recalled a day seventeen years and one day before when I had watched people standing with rain pouring down their faces. The circumstances were very different. The earlier occasion was the ceremonies surrounding the return of Hong Kong to China, and the wet faces were those of soldiers, stoically either marking the end of Empire or resuming legitimate sovereignty over the territory. China had promised "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong", and a transition to universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive. The Basic Law guaranteed that, with the exception of Defence and Foreign Affairs, Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy.

Since then, the public holiday on 1st July has become an annual protest day, with every conceivable group promoting their own concerns, but the largest protests have reflected the unpopularity of the Government and concentrated on democratic reforms.

I decided to join the democracy rally this year, for the first time, because of the erosion of the freedoms promised by China and laid out in the Basic Law. Progress towards universal suffrage for Chief Executive elections has been slow, and the current timetable is for the next CE to be directly elected, in 2017, if the nomination procedure can be agreed. The problem is that the Government and Beijing are insisting that Article 45 of the Basic Law, which says, "nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee" prohibits public nomination. Furthermore, Beijing sources insist that candidates must "love China", which is something that cannot be objectively evaluated or certified. The suspicion is that the nominating committee will have a similar composition to the former election committee, heavily weighted in favour of Beijing loyalists, that will only nominate candidates who obey Beijing, leaving the electorate to choose between Sock Puppet One and Sock Puppet Two.

The recent publication of a white paper on Hong Kong by the State Council increased my concerns. The stress is on China's sovereignty overriding the Basic Law, that "one country" must not be subverted by "two systems", and the high degree of autonomy is not mentioned. So I voted in the unofficial referendum organised by Hong Kong University on nomination methods. Then I saw that Beijing loyalists were denouncing the poll as "illegal" and flawed because the online voting was not "secure". Firstly, saying it was illegal is a lie. It was promoted as an unofficial referendum, and it was acknowledged that it was not legally binding, but that doesn't make it illegal. We still have free speech, and the unofficial referendum is an expression of public opinion.

What about the insecurity of the online voting? My job is information security, and I don't support electronic voting for official elections because too much becomes impossible to audit retrospectively. However, as a mass demonstration of public opinion, the PopVote poll was a lot better designed and run than most surveys. The voting website could only be accessed from Hong Kong, voters used their Hong Kong Identification Numbers, and votes were verified by an SMS to their (Hong Kong) mobile phone. Together, this makes it difficult for mass fraudulent voting. I have high confidence that hundreds of thousands of people in Hong Kong expressed their opinion in the poll, and any Government would be unwise to disregard such a strong voice.

So, I marched to affirm that my online vote in the unofficial referendum was real.

Some Beijing commentators have accused foreign agitators of destabilising Hong Kong, so am I one of these agitators? I have lived in Hong Kong 21 years, worked here, paid taxes here. By Hong Kong law, I am a permanent resident and entitled to vote. So, I am entitled to voice my opinion in a peaceful rally. I am not Chinese, but to exclude me for that reason is racist. Were there other foreigners who were agitators? Everything about the rally was very local. Leaflets and speeches were exclusively Chinese, there were a few directions given in English from the podium in Victoria Park, but none elsewhere along the route. Everything was very clearly organised by local Chinese people for local Chinese people. In the whole rally, I saw about 12 westerners, the largest group was with the Lantau Buffalo Association. The Beijing commentators are wrong on this.

I arrived at Victoria Park about 14:10 and joined the crowd filing into the football pitches. We stood in the heat as organisers on the podium spoke, sang and gave progress reports on the filling of the park. We waited, another pitch was declared full, start filling up 3B, and so on. First aid posts were available in each pitch. Finally, about 15:23, the podium announced that the march had started. I could see no-one moving. We waited, pitch 5B should proceed to the exit. Then our turn, a slow drift across the pitch, a pause, shuffle, shuffle. Police were pausing the flow from the exit to allow traffic to pass. Finally, I left the park at 16:03. We filled the westbound carriageway of Causeway Road. Then, the Police moved their cones back and we cheered and spread onto the tramlines too.

Progress slowed as we approached the Regal Hotel, then stopped altogether when I was alongside the Hotel. The sky darkened and it rained for ten minutes. After half an hour, we shifted forwards and I entered Jardine's Bazaar. Then we really slowed down. It rained again. I found the rain a welcome relief from the heat, but most people put up umbrellas. Someone was kind enough to cover me with their umbrella, but we were packed too closely. Although that umbrella shielded me from direct rain, two or three other umbrellas around me were held by shorter people, approximately at my shoulder height. So, the rain heading for me was directed away, onto these lower umbrellas that collected additional precipitation. Some bounced into my face, but most was concentrated into rivulets that soaked me from every side. By the time the rain stopped, I was soaked to the skin.

The rain did not deter anyone. Not one person did I see leave the rally when it rained.

As we waited, there was occasional singing and chanting, most of hoi lo, "open the road". After an hour, I shuffled forwards to the end of Jardine's Bazaar, opposite the Sogo department store. It had taken two hours to complete a walk that normally takes about eight minutes. The patience and restraint of the marchers was notable. There was no anger or outbursts of frustration, the chanting was firm but not raucous. Everyone waited until we could move on again.

Once on Hennessy Road, we speeded up to a crawl. There were still unexplained pauses. I passed the Canal Road Flyover around 18:30 and could walk at a normal pace when I reached admiralty, an hour and a quarter later. I reached Statue Square about 20:00 and left to catch a bus.

My bus home passed over the Canal Road Flyover about 20:30 and there was a collective gasp from the passengers as we saw the road still filled with marchers, close packed, stretching back as far as we could see towards Causeway Bay.

How big was the march? The crowd was close-packed as far as I could see, which was not very far. We were told by the podium, before we started, that we had filled all the football pitches and spilled over to fill the lawn in Victoria Park. According to the South China Morning Post's (SCMP) timeline, the head of the march reached Pacific Place about 16:56, when I was still alongside the Regal Hotel in Causeway Bay, and the last marchers left the park around 19:20.

The organisers claimed 510,000 participants, the Police estimated that 92,000 left Victoria Park, I assume by their designated exit. The University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme estimate was "between 154,000 and 172,000". My personal estimate is 200,000, based on the time it took me to complete the route (4 hours), the route length (3.7Km), the duration of people leaving Victoria Park (15:23 to 19:20, i.e. 3 hours 57 minutes) and the density of people around me (4 per m2). I would regard this as a lower limit, as it does not take account of those who took other exits from Victoria Park, or those who joined without entering the park.

The rally was remarkably peaceful. Hundreds of thousands of people coming together for a protest and proceeding patiently from the beginning to the end. The rally was scheduled to end at midnight, a few hundred activists stayed in Chater Road as deliberate civil disobedience, but even the reports of this show no violent tendencies. They sat, arms linked until their target, 8am, then unlinked their arms. Police say 511 were arrested on suspicion of illegal assembly. Protesters say Police used unnecessary force in arresting them. To complete the catalogue of disorder and violence, a Policeman was pushed over, a protester was pushed over, a metal barrier was pushed into a bus, a bystander was accused of attacking another bystander. Police did not use pepper spray, water cannon or riot gear. For a crowd that size, the violence was insignificant.

Hong Kong has demonstrated again that it can do large-scale peaceful protest, demanding that the promises made by Beijing in the Basic Law are fulfilled. It is time for the Government to unveil a compromise proposal. Personally, open public nomination would be ideal, but any method of nomination that would allow a full range of candidates, from radical-democratic, through moderate to radical-pro-Beijing, would be acceptable. My "litmus test" would be Leung Kwok-hung ("Long Hair") or another member of the League of Social Democrats being nominated. Not that I would vote for them, or expect many people to vote for them, but so that we get a choice between all the options.

Hong Kong is like a handful of sand. The more Beijing tries to tighten its grip, the more sand escapes through its fingers.

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