As Hong Kong’s pro-democracy sit-in protests wane, the city’s impeccably behaved student demonstrators can already claim a moral victory. Yet no amount of peaceful dissent is likely to cause Beijing to budge on its conservative reform plan for the city’s 2017 elections.
Over the past fortnight, student protesters have gained public sympathy and succeeded in laying bare the illegitimacy of the local government. They were never going to win against China, but it may not matter. This is because the man who originally inspired the city-wide occupations has a Plan B—one which will likely infuriate Beijing and may even work.
The idea to block roads and bring Hong Kong to a standstill as a protest of “last resort” was first suggested by law professor Benny Tai almost two years ago. State media and pro-government groups dubbed Tai and his co-organizers “radicals“ and “extremists,” labeling their proposal “terrorism.” But just as support seemed to be fading for Occupy Central last month, students embraced Tai’s strategy for mass occupations off the back of their own week-long class boycott.
This gave rise to the pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” with tens-of-thousands of mostly young protesters shutting down some of the city’s main thoroughfares. They scrubbed protest sites clean, recycled trash and stood firm despite tear gas and attacks from pro-government mobs—thus winning hearts and minds at home and abroad.
But with exhausted activists now losing steam, student leaders in the thick of negotiations with the government, and turnout at the protest camps diminishing, it is worth assessing what could happen next.
Reacting to Beijing’s decision to restrict elections in 2017, Tai indicated he had another trick up his sleeve. “Shadow elections” would help “build up the democratic capacity of Hong Kong,” Tai told me. Recognizing that the central government will always have final say on the Special Administrative Region’s constitutional development, he said there was nothing stopping citizens from boycotting the next elections and voting for a shadow leader.
Speaking two weeks ago at Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondent’s Club, he elaborated: “A deliberation on issues related to the post-occupation era” would lead to an alternative “Hong Kong Charter.” This document would be developed and voted upon by the people. Although it would not hold any official or legal weight, Tai suggested the charter would act as a platform on which a candidate could stand in a free, city-wide unofficial vote.
A second chief executive would then act as a de facto opposition leader to the officially chosen candidate. Unlike Beijing’s pre-screened nominee, anyone would be able to stand in the unofficial elections and every citizen’s vote would be worth the same.
The exercise would be perfectly legal and would likely anger Beijing, even though the informally elected leader would be effectively powerless. The Chinese government already has to battle for its officially endorsed Tibetan spiritual leader to be respected over the more widely accepted Dalai Lama, who lives in exile. Beijing would probably not appreciate seeing a figurehead in Hong Kong wielding the kind of moral authority their pre-approved candidate lacks.
But, like it or not, the “people’s winner” could become an important part of the city’s political discourse. Embodying more legitimacy than the “real” chief executive, the media would probably hound the de facto leader for their reaction to every conceivable topic.
The logistics of staging an alternative referendum have already been tried and tested. 800,000 citizens took part in an unofficial referendum in June. It was organized by the Occupy Central campaign so that supporters could agree on the movement’s demands.
Should Beijing decide it is unable to entrust the city’s citizens with meaningful democracy, they should be warned that Hong Kongers could simply head to a self-made ballot box.