Occupy Hong Kong Hits a Bump in the Road

FAQ 5 for the aborted Occupy Central poll:

How can you prevent “blue ribbon” supporters from voting?

Each potential voter will need to sign a declaration saying they support the Umbrella Movement.  We welcome blue ribbon people to support the Umbrella Movement.

Not as silly as it sounds, IMO.  Actually, to quote Admiral Akhbar, It’s A Trap!

Specifically, if blues wanted to “freep” the poll en masse in an attempt to vote down the proposals, it would be at the cost of swelling the ranks of putative Umbrella Movement supporters.

Other than “democracy”, another pair of words that had a hard time navigating the epistemological shoals are “proposed” and “offered” in referring to representations made by the HKSAR government side during the televised dialogue on October 22, as in:

“Lam also offered to send a supplementary report to Beijing addressing the views of protesters” (McClatchy)


Hong Kong protesters plan to hold a straw poll on government proposals they rejected earlier in the week (Reuters)

What Carrie Lam actually said was:

我们愿意考虑向中央提交一个报告,将在8月底之后的按全国人大常委决定,在本 港发生的事和表达诉求制成报告,交给国务院港澳办,各位在这段时间内表达的意见和关注,透过特区政府的报告交给中央,给他们参考。这是我们这次会面的回 应。

We are willing to consider delivering a report to the center [on the concerns and demands of students raised since the NPC Standing Committee announced its posture on popular nomination on August 31]…this is our response at this meeting.



The Hong Kong government agrees to reflect to the Hong Kong [sic] government the concerns and demands brought by the student movement.  We are actively considering how to deliver a report to the Hong & Macau Affairs Office outside of the five-step constitution-revision process.

So the letter or whatever to the NPC is not a proposal or offer to the students for them to accept or negotiate.  It’s a unilateral concession–after the HKSAR gets done with its “considering”.

NPR, among other outlets, got it right:

Lam said the Hong Kong government is considering submitting a report to Beijing outlining the demands and concerns of the protesters. She said the Chinese leadership could use it as a “reference.”

The other government gambit was to propose a multi-party platform, in other words an expansion of the dialogue beyond the two current student and government counterparties:


It is hoped that everybody will further explore the establishment of a multi-party platform to discuss governmental reform, and enable the various elements of society, including students and youth, to participate in the discussion.

Since the students are already in the dialogue, this was an invitation to other stakeholders, not just pro-democracy forces but also pro-Beijing forces, to join the talking shop and engage in what the Chinese picturesquely call a “spittle fight” that would sap the momentum and glamour of the demonstrations and, presumably, make the Hong Kong populace sick to death of the whole constitutional debate.

So this kind of framing, courtesy of the SCMP, is just plain wrong:

Student, Occupy leaders announce vote on government’s reform proposals

Democratic exercise will ask whether students’ federation should accept the government’s offers

Protesters in “Umbrella Plaza”, Admiralty, will be polled on whether student leaders should accept the government’s offers made at talks on Tuesday on ending nearly a month of sit-ins.

This makes it sound like that the students led by Alex Chow had been recognized by the HKSAR as a legitimate interlocutor and negotiating partner and the referendum would approve or reject the government’s proposals or offers made to them.

Negatory on that trajectory, as happy as the pro-dem forces were to spin or be spun in that direction.

Actually, the referendum was intended to validate the leadership in its critique of the government initiatives, demonstrate that the government had not succeeded in seducing the students with the sugar-coated bullets it had dispensed during the televised dialogue, and the Occupiers were solidly lined up against the government and behind their leaders.

“The government always says that the students don’t represent the people in the plaza and Hong Kong citizens, so we are here to make all our voices heard and we will tell the government clearly what we think,” [said] Alex Chow .

“Telling the government clearly what they thought” turned out to be a goal beyond the grasp of the pro-democracy movement, somewhat ironic since Chow had just excoriated the government response as “vague” and completely lacking “concrete proposals”.

According to Al Jazeera:

In the poll…, demonstrators will be asked whether the government’s offer to submit a report to the central government’s Hong Kong and Macau affairs office on the protests would have any practical purpose.

Judging by the LA Times on Saturday, discussions seemed to meander in a way that would please connoisseurs of genuine democracy, but perhaps had some of the organizers tearing their hair:

The exact wording of the poll has gone through multiple iterations. As of Saturday, organizers said it would focus on two main questions – but will not ask people whether or when they believe the sit-ins should end.

Right after the televised dialogue, the first report I saw was that Benny Tai was talking about a relatively solid, straightforward referendum in which the students either rejected the government approach and continued civil disobedience (with the government’s concession already in the pocket, so to speak) or endorsed the proposed mechanisms, declared victory, and withdrew.

(I confess I haven’t been able to track the original report I remember, stating that Tai envisioned a withdrawal/no withdrawal structure, though the position is stated in this AP headline/lede from October 23, Hong Kong Protesters To Vote Whether Or Not To Stay In Streets: “Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong plan to hold a spot referendum Sunday on whether to stay in the streets or accept government offers for more talks and clear their protest camps.”)

An up/down vote on the HKSAR’s initiative and whether or not the occupation should be continued would not have been a bad tactical move, in my opinion.

If there was a vote to “reject and stay,” demonstrator opposition to the government’s blandishments would be resoundingly confirmed by the vote and the HKSAR would have to come up with something better.

As to voting for the government and against its own leadership and going home, maybe Benny Tai didn’t envision that contingency.

But if it the vote went the other way, well that’s democracy.  And at the very least, in dealings between the government and the movement, the democratic camel’s got his nose in the tent, soon to be followed, I expect, to be followed by the camel’s head, hump, butt, tail, Mrs. Camel, and all the adorable baby camels, and negotiations could very well turn into a non-stop vote-a-thon.

Reading between the lines, however, I think the pro-democracy group got hung up on the possibility that the pro-Beijing crowd would mobilize crowds of people to corrupt the vote in some fiasco and send the demonstrators home profoundly pissed off at the opposition, the HKSAR, and their own leadership, and unlikely to come out again.

By the end of the week, Benny Tai clearly repudiated any “stay or go” implications for the referendum:

“Some people have criticized the vote and said that it’s being used to decide on whether to leave” the protest sites, Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai said. “I repeat that this is not a vote related to leaving. Our goal is to allow protesters to express their views.”

Mr. Tai said he hoped the vote would pressure the government to negotiate with protest leaders, but some protesters criticized the need for such a poll.

So withdrawal was Off the Menu! And replaced with a healthy serving of mush.

The  most recent motions I saw announced motions on the @OCLPHK twitter feed were:

1. In the report to be submitted by the HKSAR Government to the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, it must include a suggestion that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress reviews its August 31 decision.  Choices: Agree, Disagree, Abstain

2. The multi-party platform for handling political reform controversies must handle the methods of the Legislative Council election in 2016 and the Chief Elective election in 2017.  Choices: Agree Disagree Abstain

Helpfully, the Voter Requirement:

Voters must confirm they understand the contents of the two motions and support the Umbrella Movement.

But no poll tax!  No explicit literacy requirement!  By this standard, the Occupy Hong Kong has achieved 1950s Mississippi levels of direct democracy.  Indeed, it’s come very far in a short time.  Go Jim Crow!

OK, enough snark.  But please note the presumably inadvertent parallel to the much derided “must love the Motherland and Hong Kong” qualification for serving as Chief Executive.

A classic case of desperately trying to please everybody but in the end pleasing nobody.  Not hard to see why the referendum collapsed under its own weight.

This is a rather awkward juncture for Occupy Hong Kong.

“Continuing to obstruct public infrastructure in contemptuous rejection of an inadequate concession” doesn’t have the same galvanizing jolt as “flooding the streets to prevent the murder of Hong Kong democracy”.

Add to that the fact that civil disobedience is now continuing in a sort of anarcho-shambolic way, absent a formal general affirmation of the position taken by the student leadership in response to the HKSAR’s initiative, let alone an explicit strategy.  This state of affairs, I would assume, is not particularly impressive to people who do not already share the anarcho-shambolic civil disobedience mindset.

Benny Tai doesn’t look good, because it looks like he and his allies in the student leadership can’t deliver unified, responsive leadership of the pro-dem student movement, thereby allowing the HKSAR and PRC to disparage his effectiveness and legitimacy as an interlocutor with the government.

And, of course, it leaves the movement with the question of What Next?  The student leaders came out of the televised dialogue rather well in terms of arguments, optics, and the sense that the government had no choice but to engage with them.

I speculate that Benny Tai intended to give the escalation crank another turn by rejecting the government’s response through the referendum, staying in the streets, and thereby putting the onus on the HKSAR to come up with something better.   The referendum would also give the movement something to build on: other elements could endorse its vote, come out to support the students in the confrontation, in other words, bring other potent forces, perhaps the pro-democracy union movement under Lee Cheuk-yan, into play.

Instead, we get a Whole Lotta Meh.

The question of how to proceed will, I suspect, be answered through hours of agitated chatter between student leaders, student followers, and an increasingly frazzled adult leadership, ahem, excuse me, conveners with some outside help…

…from the polls.

The Umbrella Movement may qualify as the most heavily polled political upheaval in history—on both sides.

And that’s probably why it’s called the “Umbrella Movement” today: because “Umbrella Revolution” didn’t poll well enough among the more skittish Hong Kongers.

It is not unlikely that polling, in addition to the conventional “waddya think” internal polling needed to determine the movement’s strength and guide its tactics, also includes the push-polling adored by American politicians, and I would expect, promoted to Hong Kong in the interest of best practices by the NED.  You know, “Do you want to protect your freedom, dignity, and prosperity by directly nominating your leaders, or would you prefer to have a PLA tank run over your dog…before your eyes…repeatedly.”

I think I saw a taste of that in the dialogue, when the students invoked a poll with the finding that “72% of respondents declared it was unacceptable that only members of the pro-Beijing faction [a.k.a. people who would run your tank over with a dog] could become candidates to become Chief Executive”.

The government seems to play the same game: “According to several polls, over 50% of respondents would be happy to have the gain of universal suffrage ‘safely buttoned in their pocket’”.

The Hong Kong Transition Project is a multinational initiative hosted by Hong Kong Baptist University which receives support from the U.S. “National Democratic Institute for International Affairs” (an NED affiliate).  It proudly announces it has been polling on constitutional issues since 1991.

A nice, recent example is this HKTP poll, conducted at the beginning of 2014.  It devotes 8 pages of its 34 pages to the single issue of Carrie Lam, specifically what demographic slices consider Carrie Lam a trustworthy steward of the constitutional reform consultative process.

For instance, only 2% of housewives think Lam will be very unfair.

Then you get a breakdown of who supports plans to Occupy Central.

Didja know, for instance, that other than the ultra rich, the group that had the highest percentage of strongly opposed was the ultra poor (33%)?

Another interesting tidbit: 90% of those polled said their position on Occupy, pro or anti, would be unaffected by a declaration of support by the pro-dem political faction.  So I guess that’s why we don’t see Alan Leong out on the barricades that much.

And there’s a section on anxieties about damage to Hong Kong’s economy from an Occupy movement.  Good news!  85% of Hong Kongers who ID pluralistic and international are not worried at all!

Plenty to chew on concerning the political postures and strategies that are playing out today.

On the other hand, questions about the constitutional issues underlying Occupy: Zero. Nada. Zilch.

This poll is, at its heart, operational intelligence for the Occupy movement.  Suck on it, NED/NDI defenders!

Polling seems to be everywhere, internal as well as public.

One of the revelations of the oppo dump of minutes from the meetings of the Alliance for True Democracy is the commissioning of internal monthly opinion polls from Hong Kong University’s Popular Opinion Programme, or HKU POP at, well, HK$7000/pop.

HKU POP ran Occupy’s famous unofficial July 1 referendum on universal suffrage.  It also does a lot of interesting public polling.

In what may be bad news for the pro-dems, HKU POP indicates that popularity ratings for Lee Cheuk-yan—the union leader, Labour Party honcho, Legco member, recipient of considerable largesse from Jimmy Lai and NDI, and who may have been Occupy’s chosen champion for the next stage of demonstrations—has sagged in recent months; and I’m assuming the October poll was taken before the pro-Beijing media began hammering him with unflattering tittle-tattle from a massive hack of his union’s e-mails.

The stridently pro-Beijing Regina Ip has taken a hit as well; but the Legco President and discretely pro-Beijing Jasper Tsang has apparently seen his popularity rise steadily —in fact, he’s the only one of the “Top 5” councilors to show any improvement over the last few months–perhaps an indication that Hong Kong public opinion prefers his more emollient style.

I’m sure there’s a lot of internal polling and parsing to determine whether the various, well, since we can’t call them “leaders”, public figures associated with the pro-democracy movement, guys like Alex Chow, Joshua Wong, and, yes, Benny Tai are holding onto their favorability ratings, growing the pie, or *gulp* finding out that non-stop exposure is nudging them into the dreaded “familiarity breeds contempt” territory.

And polling will be decisive if and when Benny Tai deploys what I personally believe is his “nuclear option”: a demand that a formal citywide vote be conducted to determine the Hong Kong electorate’s preferences on popular nomination, thereby giving the HKSAR zero wiggle room in spinning the state of local opinion to the NPC.

That day will certainly be further off, thanks to this week’s referendum debacle.

I don’t think Occupy Hong Kong, or its many allies, are bereft of hope, determination, popularity, or recourse.  But right now it seems to have a momentum and unity deficit (wonder what the polls say!).

What the OHK brain trust does in the next few days will determine if the referendum glitch is just a bump in the road, or a trip into the ditch for the democracy movement.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.

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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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