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Turnout for Unofficial Vote in Hong Kong Excites Democracy Advocates



HONG KONG — An unofficial referendum on making the selection of Hong Kong’s chief executive more democratic has attracted votes equal to more than a fifth of the city’s electorate, organizers said on Sunday, its final day. They voiced hopes that the higher-than-anticipated participation would, along with a protest march on Tuesday, raise pressure on the mainland Chinese government to give ground.

Democracy advocates organized the 10-day vote as a political battering ram, seeking to force Hong Kong politicians and Chinese Communist Party officials to heed demands that the election of the chief executive, the city’s top leader, be opened to greater public participation with fewer procedural barriers set in place by Beijing.

Hours before voting closed, more than 780,000 Hong Kong residents had voted, using a phone app, a website or polling booths to choose between three proposals, according to the university polling unit that oversaw the vote. The vote lacked the safeguards of an official election, but the final number was equal to 22 percent of Hong Kong’s 3.51 million registered voters. In the last election for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, in 2012, about half of registered voters cast a ballot.

“That is a figure much higher than anyone could have expected, including us and the government,” said Benny Tai, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong who is a leader of Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the group that started the referendum.

“I think we’re seeing some signs that the Chinese government understands that the civil referendum, even though unofficial, is an expression of public opinion that needs to be considered seriously,” Mr. Tai said in an interview.

The Occupy organizers have said that if electoral changes fall short of genuine universal suffrage, they will hold civil disobedience protests in Central, a district dense with banks and other businesses.

The Chinese government has condemned Occupy Central and dismissed the referendum as illegal. But Mr. Tai said comments from Chinese scholars and Hong Kong politicians aligned with Beijing gave him some hope that the vote could affect government decisions over electoral changes in coming months.

But Michael Tien, a pro-establishment member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, said in an interview on Monday that the referendum would have to garner far more votes for the central government in Beijing to consider changing its stance on how the chief executive is nominated.

“If instead of 700,000 it is three or four million, then I think China would completely reassess the situation,” said Mr. Tien, a leader of the New People’s Party.

Tensions have been rising in Hong Kong over the electoral issue and many residents’ worries that the Chinese Communist Party leadership is seeking to shrink the city’s autonomy, established under a “one country, two systems” policy agreed upon before the British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

The next gauge of discontent with government policies in Hong Kong will come on Tuesday, the anniversary of the city’s return to China, and a day every year when democratic groups and other critics of Beijing rally to show their support.

“We have to wait for the turnout on the first of July,” said Mr. Tai. “If we have a very high turnout, that again will confirm the message to Beijing that Hong Kong people are really determined to have true democracy.”

He said that this year, the organizers of the July 1 march hoped to see attendance rivaling the 2003 march, when hundreds of thousands of people joined in. That year, many Hong Kong people were angered by proposals to introduce internal security laws backed by Beijing, and organizers estimated that more than 500,000 people took part, while the police estimated 350,000.

China has promised to allow voting changes for Hong Kong so that from 2017, the chief executive is chosen through universal suffrage, a step provided for in the basic legal framework for the city. But democracy activists believe the changes could preserve Beijing’s power to engineer the outcome it wants. The unofficial referendum laid out three proposals to ensure that the public can vote in candidates even if they do not have the blessing of a nomination committee, an oversight body that now has 1,200 members, most of them loyal to the Chinese government.

The Chinese government is unlikely to publicly acknowledge pressure from opinion in Hong Kong, but the discontent reflected in the referendum could eventually help induce quiet concessions from Beijing, said Joseph Wong Wing-ping, a former senior public servant in Hong Kong who has backed the Occupy Central movement. (NY Times)

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