Hong Kong, Scotland and Catalonia, a Tale of Three Referenda    

Ho Wai Clarence Leong, a student from Hong Kong living in Scotland, compares the referenda and public consultation in Hong Kong, Scotland and Catalonia, held during the last months of the recent year. 


Ho Wai Clarence Leong

Referenda (1) are exciting for people to watch. They often stir up heated debates and inspire imaginations, especially when they are about big questions- cases in point are the two best-known referendums of 2014, one held in Scotland and the other in Catalonia.

[cml_media_alt id='1120']images (13)[/cml_media_alt]It is a form of direct democracy- it takes the debate from the enclosed walls of the parliament hall out into the open of society, because all voters can change the final outcome.

It is most effective in quantifying a population’s support for a policy or the “yes or no” to a question. It gives a clear focus to public debate and often draws detailed arguments for either side of the question.

A lesser known referendum in 2014 is perhaps the “6.22 Civil Referendum” (a.k.a. (2) PopVote) held in Hong Kong. Despite the lack of legal provision for holding referendum in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution called the “Basic Law”, voting exercises resembling the form of “referendums” have become a recurring theme in Hong Kong politics in recent years.

[cml_media_alt id='1124']images (9)[/cml_media_alt]This is an indicator of the lack of official channels for people to express their political views, and a reaction to an almost self-deceptive approach adopted by the government when it portrays “referendum” results as minority views, or else decides to press on as before, unmoved. Yet what followed three months afterwards made it to the headlines of many international newspapers.

Images of the “Umbrella Revolution” spread across the globe. It surpassed anybody’s imagination when it happened, as 79 days of occupation in some of the major thoroughfares of the city marked the strongest statement yet of Hong Kong people’s desire for democracy.


[vimeo height=”500″ width=”1000″]http://vimeo.com/108808465[/vimeo]

Video by Anthony Amici (see credits).

The PopVote in Hong Kong was in several ways different from those held in Scotland and Spanish Catalonia.

Firstly, it was not about independence but political reform. The two questions asked were (1) which of the three reform packages for 2017 Chief Executive election did voters support the most; and (2) if lawmakers should veto any government proposal which fell short of international standards allowing genuine choices.

Secondly, it was not binding like the Scottish referendum, nor endorsed by the regional parliament like Catalonia’s vote was. Rather, it was conducted outside of the establishment and organised by the University of Hong Kong (HKU) under the commission of the Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP). As a sidenote, it was a largely digital affair- only 0.01% of the ballots were paper votes. People mainly voted using a mobile app or by accessing the webpage.

[youtube height=”500″ width=”1000″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxWK34TgR2M?enablejsapi=1[/youtube]

Close to 790,000 people participated in this exercise, with the results overwhelmingly (3) in favour of vetoing any reform proposal that does not allow for genuine choices (87.8%). This number far exceeded the original estimate of 100,000 votes the organisers had in mind. Such fervent participation in this civil referendum was fuelled by fears that the core values of Hong Kong were being violently rolled back.

The Chinese central government released a white paper less than two weeks prior to the referendum asserting “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, in effect unilaterally nullifying the policy of “one country, two systems”, which was first devised by the broker of Hong Kong’s hand-over to China, Deng Xiaoping.

In addition, days before the proposed date of the referendum, hackers who were likely to be associated with the state sabotaged the organisers’ website, causing many to see their freedom of expression being taken away before their very eyes.

The government’s response to the referendum was one of dismissal and counteraction. In a demeaning act for a Chief Executive, CY Leung signed the Anti-Occupy Central petition, which sprang up immediately after the PopVote achieved such startling (4) results.

[cml_media_alt id='1136']download (2)[/cml_media_alt]
Chief Executive CY Leung signing the Anti-Occupy Central petition

Mr Leung portrayed this as if it is a clear-cut legal issue, stating that there is no “’middle area’ between breaking the law and not breaking the law”. Nonetheless, as pointed out by the outgoing Bar Association chairman Paul Shieh in a much-acclaimed speech recently, law is made a “scapegoat or excuse” when it is used to delegitimise opposition that warrants a political response from the government.

[cml_media_alt id='1126']images (10)[/cml_media_alt]

The law-breaking act threatened by the Occupy Central organisers was a form of civil disobedience carried out to achieve a political end. It oversimplifies the issue and misses the point (5) if viewed solely in legalistic terms. Moreover, organisers of this petition aimed to collect more signatures than the PopVote in order to invalidate it, though this runs on a seriously flawed assumption that a greater number should silence the opinions of others.

Failing to face up to the political challenges, which should be responded to with dialogue and persuasion, even necessary compromise, the establishment’s recalcitrance worsened polarisation and indirectly encouraged more spectacular ways to pressure for change.

It certainly was not helped by the framework set forth by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) on 31st August, in which it was specified that Chief Executive candidates will first have to be pre-screened by a nominating committee stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists.

The Bar Association calls it “unreasonably restrictive”. Candidates will have to gain the endorsement of at least half of the nominating committee in order to stand for election, meaning that no one without the blessing of Beijing will appear on the final ballot paper for eligible voters in Hong Kong to be chosen.

A similar unwillingness (6) to engage with the opposition can be observed in the Spanish central government in Madrid, even the tendency to dress up the problem as a legal one.

[cml_media_alt id='1166']Catalan voters queueing last 9 November.[/cml_media_alt]
Catalan voters queueing last 9 November in Barcelona.

The Catalonian “referendum” was ruled out by the Constitutional Court in Madrid before it could be held. The vote went ahead nonetheless, attracting roughly 2.3 million votes, with an overwhelming 80% in favour of independence. A few weeks after this, Catalan president Artur Mas was charged by the attorney (7)  general with disobedience, abuse of power and misuse of public funds.

The situation in Hong Kong offers parallels, as the Law is evoked when pan-democrats’ calls for further reform were dismissed as “unconstitutional”, and participants of OCLP were reduced to merely law-breakers and therefore “wrong”.

These are attempts by the government to deflect (8) its responsibility away from dealing with a political conundrum. In both cases, it is about a region’s tensions with a state sovereignty- in Catalonia’s case, to fight for complete autonomy; in Hong Kong, it is a struggle to retain a high level of autonomy.

The fact that next to nothing had been done to assuage the apprehension that Hong Kong’s high level of autonomy was under threat only made the politically discontent all the more determined to stage protests.

[cml_media_alt id='1134']download (1)[/cml_media_alt]
Police repressing pacific protestors in Hong Kong last December.

Lukewarm response from the government is the persistent reason why more people are disillusioned and seek other means to express their political views and pressure the government into change.

Hong Kong has now got to a stage where even referendums are considered ineffective and too mild to elicit a concession from the government.

Earlier this month, legislator Albert Ho from the Democratic Party announced his intention to resign after the Legislative Council’s (LegCo) vote on the reform package. The by-election (9) that follows would provide a chance for a “de facto referendum”. Yet this proposal has been met with more doubts than enthusiasm because of its timing and lack of consensus with pan-democrat allies before its announcement.

This tactic harks back to the “by-election de facto referendum” of 2010, when it was first employed. Back then, the agenda was to abolish the functional constituencies in the LegCo. It was boycotted by the pro-establishment camp, and the turn-out rate was low at 17.1%. Nonetheless, the first “de facto referendum” could be seen as the curtain-raiser for an era of protests, where civil society seeks empowerment outside of a dysfunctional system.

[youtube height=”500″ width=”1000″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfhM3SFuloQ?enablejsapi=1[/youtube]

Referendums in Hong Kong can be set apart from the Scottish and Catalonian ones by referring to the social forces that shaped it. Both European countries held their referendums with austerity in the background.

The economic downturn (10) of 2008 caused both governments to cut spendings, thus making pertinent the claim that the Scottish/Catalans are contributing more than average to national income, yet receiving less in return. And more, that if separated from the mainland, Scotland/Catalonia may be better off economically.

[cml_media_alt id='1133']images (2)[/cml_media_alt]The China-Hong Kong case is markedly different, and understandably so. In many ways Hong Kong nowadays thrives economically thanks to a huge market in the Mainland, and will scarcely be better off if she is separated from China. Yet what fuel antagonisms towards the central government in Beijing are the perceived differences between the Mainland and Hong Kong in terms of politics and culture.

Many see “mainlandisation” (of Hong Kong losing her distinctions from a city in the Mainland) as a regression. Suppression of free speech and the lack of food safety, which are rife in modern-day China, cause affirmation of a Hong Kong, rather than Chinese, identity.

Calls for (11) democracy will only get firmer as people see that the promise of high-level autonomy to Hong Kong people 30 years ago is merely a veneer; that the Mainland’s tightening grip on Hong Kong politics is real. One may expect calls for independence to die down provided that economic recovery picks up speed in Europe; yet in Hong Kong, only a reversal of China’s assertive and stultifying policy would do it.

Referendum (or quasi-referendum) in the UK and Hong Kong plays very different roles in the political processes. In Britain, it is incorporated into a political system supported by democratic principles as pillars.

The Scottish referendum came out of the Edinburgh Agreement, signed in October 2012, after the Scottish National Party (SNP) secured mandate following a landslide victory in an election held a year before.

[cml_media_alt id='1154']Alex Salmond and David Cameron signing the Edinburgh agreement in 2012.[/cml_media_alt]
Alex Salmond and David Cameron signing the Edinburgh agreement in 2012.

The parliament in Westminster therefore agreed to it because of a bottom-up show of popular will in an election. Fearing to lose the “Better Together” campaign, cross-party leaders vowed to devolve more powers to Holyrood if Scotland decided to stay within the UK.

There is an ongoing pressure for those in power to deliver on these promises because ultimately, they will be punished by a disappointed electorate in the next election. That is precisely why, when Scotland’s new first minister Nicola Sturgeon criticized the Smith commission of not going far enough in granting new powers to Holyrood, she also stated that “at the general election [in May] the [Scottish] people will make that verdict very clear.”

In Hong Kong, the June referendum acted predominantly as a political gesture, serving to exert pressure on the regional and central government to revise or adjust their reform proposal.

As a non-binding tool, it is employed by the civil society to seek mandate to push for greater political reform than that authorities are ready to undergo. In Spain, leaving the court to deal with Artur Mas risks stoking separatist sentiment in Catalan, because its socio-economic causes are not addressed. Madrid would be ignoring the results of the referendum at its own perils.

[cml_media_alt id='1130']images (5)[/cml_media_alt]

Similarly, breakthrough (12) by the Hong Kong civil society in 2010 to use quasi-referendum to make numbers sound is telling of the fact that the system was hitherto (13) inadequate, forcing non-establishment groups to engender innovative channels to express themselves. As the political situation in Hong Kong becomes more tense, such a peaceful tool slowly loses its credence to move the government into action, in effect warranting a more radical, and potentially violent, approach. Until the government stops overlooking the demands of groups advocating for more substantial reform, radicalism (in the sense of going to the roots of the problem) would only grow.

If the Hong Kong and Mainland government may heed the British case and understand the rationale behind organising official and binding referendums, they would be progressing swiftly along the road of improving the political system by becoming more responsive to the needs of the electorate.

[cml_media_alt id='1173']images (15)[/cml_media_alt]Those that have actively participated in the referendum or occupy movement show better civic spirit than those who kept silent. Such an emblem of a mature and peace-loving civil society deserves of attention and should be heeded (14). The unofficial ballot is perhaps unpalatable to any government not wishing to have opposition quantified, yet it is still much better than letting disillusionment close the door of negotiation and risk turning radicals into extremists.


Use of English for Spanish Speakers

(1) Referenda. 

          • Definition: plural form of referendum also accepted referendums. For further information click here. 
          • Example: “Both referenda were held the same year”. 
          • Translation into Spanish: Existe una situación muy similar en castellano para referendums o referendos.

(2) A.k.a.

          • Definition: abbreviation for “also known as”.
          • Example: “Coronation Street actress Barbara Knox, aka Rita Tanner…”. 
          • Translation into Spanish: alias.

(3) Overwhelmingly. 

          • Definition: (adv) very powerful.
          • Example: “Her desire for help was rather overwhelmingly”.
          • Translation into Spanish: abrumador, incontenible, arrollador, apabullante.

(4) Startling. 

          • Definition:(adj)causing surprise or fear; striking; astonishing.
          • Example: “The startling rise in crimes worries parents in the area”. 
          • Translation into Spanish: sorprendente, alarmante, deslumbrante.

(5) To miss the point.

          • Definition: fail to understand.
          • Example: “You’re missing the point this is not what he has just said”. 
          • Translation into Spanish: no comprender.

(6) Unwillingness.

          • Definition: not will, reluctance.
          • Example: “What is worries me most is his unwillingness to change”. 
          • Translation into Spanish: falta de voluntad.

(7) Attorney.

          • Definition: a person legally appointed or empowered to act for another.
          • Example: “Attorney representing Sam’s family claims…”
          • Translation into Spanish: representante legal, abogado (US).

(8) To deflect.

          • Definition:to bend or turn aside.
          • Example: “He managed to deflect criticism on someone else”. 
          • Translation into Spanish: desviar.

(9) By-election.

          • Definition:a special election held between general elections to fill a vacancy.
          • Example:Kirkcaldy East by-election: Scottish Labour’s problems are clear for …
          • Translation into Spanish: elección parcial/ elección extraordinaria.

(10) Economic downturn. 

          • Definition: (economics: decline, decrease).
          • Example:  ” We are now recovering from last year’s downturn”. 
          • Translation into Spanish: desaceleración económica. 

(11) Calls for. 

          • Definition: petition, opening of a submission period.
          • Example: “He made a call for change” “The department open a call for papers in June”.
          • Translation into Spanish: convocatorias, peticiones.

(12) Breakthrough. 

          • Definition: an important and sudden advance, etc., as in science, that removes a barrier to progress.
          • Example: “Medical Breakthrough Provides Elderly Woman With 2 Extra Years …”
          • Translation into Spanish: avance, logro, descubrimiento. 

(13) Hitherto. 

          • Definition: (adv) up to this time.
          • Example: “Tomb of Egypt’s hitherto unknown queen unearthed.”
          • Translation into Spanish:Hasta ahora, hasta el momento. 

(14) Heeded. 

        • Definition: (v. to heed) to give careful attention to.
        • Example: “To heed a warning”.
        • Translation into Spanish: prestar atención.

Autor: Ho Wai Clarence Leong

I'm born and bred in Hong Kong, that's the place I call home. I've been studying abroad in Scotland for five years now. Currently reading English and Modern History in St Andrews. Another project I'm working on is this biannual publication called Bu Er magazine. A bunch of young, aspiring people like me from China have come together to explore the interrelations between the world and China. You can find me in Linkedin or on Twitter at @hwclarence.

Nací y me crié en Hong Kong, un lugar al que puedo llamar mi hogar. He estado estudiando en Escocia desde hace cinco años. Actualmente curso estudios de filología inglesa e historia moderna en la universidad de St. Andrews. Otro proyecto en el que trabajo es en el magazine Bu Er. Una publicación donde un grupo de gente inquieta de China, como yo, nos hemos juntado para explorar las interrelaciones entre el mundo y China. Puedes encontrarme en Linkedin o en Twitter con @hwclarence.

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