HONG KONG—The Umbrella Movement is implementing some democracy of its own. Organizers are holding a referendum on Oct. 26 over whether the protesters should accept the government’s peace offering, made earlier this week: the creation of a platform for discussing political reform, and a public report on sentiment in Hong Kong. Accepting those proposals could mean winding down the nearly month-long occupation of major Hong Kong roads and intersections, which was triggered by China’s strict rules on how the semi-autonomous city could hold its first direct elections in 2017.
Some protesters and critics have questioned the wisdom, as well as democratic nature, of a movement where a group of young students are negotiating on behalf of all pro-democracy activists. Dissension at some of the protest sites, and among protesters calling for more extreme forms of civil disobedience, have started to crop up as the protests stretch on. Sunday’s poll may be the organizers’ attempt to provide a release valve for some of that tension.
It may not work. So far the poll will be limited to the main protest site at Admiralty. The vote will be organized by Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Program, which held an unofficial referendum on political reform in June that logged more than 780,000 votes. Protesters at the main protest site in Admiralty will be able to vote on their smartphones Sunday night by signing onto a Wifi signal called “Umbrella Plaza” with their identity card numbers.
Nor does a quick end to the occupation seem unlikely. In response to criticism from protesters, leaders of the student organizations as well as the group Occupy Central have been quick to caution that the poll, announced late last night, is not about whether to retreat. Alex Chow of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) said: “The government always says that HKFS does not represent the people. The referendum will measure these opinions and show the government there is a real need to respond to us.” Student leader Joshua Wong said on his Facebook page that protester organizers “have no plans to ask people to stop occupying.” “Protesters can decide whether to leave with their feet,” Benny Tai of Occupy Central added. “We cannot force them to leave with the poll.”
It’s uncertain whether Sunday’s poll will draw as many voters as the June vote. The number of protesters, which has ebbed and flowed over the past three weeks, has shrunk from tens of thousands during the first week to the low thousands and sometimes just a few hundred recently. And those in Mong Kok, a working class neighborhood across Victoria Harbor that has become home to some of the most determined activists, are unlikely to leave no matter what the poll says.