In Hong Kong, Does "Change Begin with a Single Step"?

In Hong Kong, Does "Change Begin with a Single Step"?

This is a guest post from David Caragliano, NDI's Senior Program Officer on the Asia team in D.C. You can follow up with David on Twitter.

Citizen participation in Hong Kong is on the rise, but the results of the September 9 legislative council (LegCo) election and the March 25 chief executive election do not fully capture the nature of citizen participation. Voter turnout on September 9 stood at 53 percent – just two percentage points under the historical record in 2004. Public outrage at the candidacy of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung and his push to require Moral and National Education (MNE) courses in Hong Kong schools has been difficult to ignore. However, under Hong Kong’s complex electoral system, political parties have tended to be unresponsive. Civil society has driven political messaging and mobilization, increasingly through online tools.

The candidacy of C.Y. Leung in chief executive election generated frustration among Hong Kong’s voters. His victory only reaffirmed the reality that fifteen years after the Handover a small circle of elites continue to monopolize the chief executive selection process.  What if the Hong Kong people could directly elect their chief executive?

 Professor Robert Chung and his team at Hong Kong University organized a civil society-driven online referendum, held two days before the actual chief executive selection date.  The referendum allowed participants the option to vote for one of the three candidates or vote to abstain – effectively a protest vote. In the charged political climate on the day of the referendum, the “3.23 Civil Referendum” was DDoSed rendering the site inaccessible; however, Chung’s team set up makeshift polling booths at eight locations across the city.  Lines of participants snaked around street corners.  According to the final tally, 222,990 voted in the referendum and of those that participated 54.6% voted to abstain.

The anti-National Education movement that more recently unfolded in the two months leading up to last week’s LegCo election had its genesis with a Facebook page, called “Scholarism,” started by secondary school students more than a year ago.  Scholarism founder Joshua Wong Chi-fung, 15, has become an icon of the movement, and his skillful interactions with media have been memorialized and disseminated on Youtube (繁體中文/English subtitles). Through this page,  Hong Kong youth have coalesced around common messages and images – for example, equating MNE with “brainwashing” and echoing themes reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.  

In early July, the Professional Teachers Union voiced concern over a government-sponsored manual for the National Education curriculum, which extolled the virtues of the “China model” (English/繁體中文) while criticizing the defects of democratic government.  The online infrastructure for civil society to organize and oppose MNE was already in place.  The teacher’s union and the newly formed National Education Parent’s Concern Group linked up with Scholarism, and their websites quickly evolved into forums for planning and publicizing offline collective action throughout late July and August.  The movement culminated in marches of tens of thousands of protesters, a 10-day sit-in of government headquarters and hunger strike immediately prior to the LegCo election.  The day before the election, the Hong Kong government retreated from its earlier position that MNE be mandatory.  

While the 3.23 Civil Referendum and Scholarism have developed into powerful “brands” of citizen activism, political parties are still disconnected from these movements. As we look toward the next LegCo term, charged with working out legislation to effectuate universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017, the key question is whether political parties will be able to constructively channel this energy at the grassroots.