Though most Hongkongers do not have a vote in the upcoming chief executive election, more than 20 civil society groups are calling on the public to participate in an unofficial referendum to nominate and elect the city’s next leader.

The “chief executive civil referendum,” proposed by law professor Benny Tai, aims at giving Hongkongers a voice in the small-circle leadership race. It has two stages: public nomination, followed by a popular vote. The nomination period began on Tuesday.

chief executive referendum
Chief executive referendum. FIle Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

‘Process, not outcome’

“The referendum focuses on the democratic process rather than the outcome: the more public participation, the more successful this referendum will be,” Tai wrote on Tuesday in a column in Apple Daily.

“The Chinese Communist Party controls most of the political resources, so even if the pro-democracy camp secured a record 300-plus seats on the Election Committee, the outcome of this small-circle election is still determined by the Communist Party,” he said.

“Our influence over the election results is trivial. Hence, if we refocus on the core idea of democracy, we will see that the process – not the outcome – is the most important.”

Under the plan, pro-democracy Election Committee members will consider nominating candidates who meet three criteria: They must receive 37,790 nominations – representing one per cent of the electorate – from the general public; they must promise to push through a political reform package not based on Beijing’s decision in 2014 barring open elections; and they must promise to defend the city’s core values.

chief executive referendum
A leaflet for the referendum campaign. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

There are 11 nominees for the public to choose from, including former chief secretary Carrie Lam, ex-finance chief John Tsang, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip, and pro-democracy lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung.

Since a minimum of 150 nominations are required to formally stand in the election, the 352 pro-democracy Election Committee members can nominate, at most, two candidates. However, only some of the members have promised to take part in the referendum.

Wendy Tsang, a volunteer of the campaign, told HKFP that she supports the unofficial plebiscite because it provides an opportunity for the public to voice their opinions on the election.

“Compared to John Tsang’s fundraiser, our campaign is more all-encompassing, as we are inviting everyone to give their input rather than focusing on just one candidate,” she said.

“Also, participants in the unofficial vote will be asked to indicate whether they support or oppose each candidate. While Tsang may seem to have a lot of support, we don’t know how many people oppose him… I think our method will reflect a fuller picture.”

Wendy Tsang
Wendy Tsang. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.


But the referendum campaign is slow to pick up momentum. It is asking for HK$1.5 million worth of public donations, but it has only raised around HK$30,000 so far. In comparison, nearly 20,000 people donated over HK$4 million to Tsang’s fundraiser in just three days.

Ip Kim-ching, spokesperson for the campaign and an Election Committee member, told HKFP that Tsang’s successful public relations have made it more difficult for them to gain public support.

“Some people are content with the small-circle election and may not be enthusiastic about public participation,” Ip said. He added that the lack of funding means limited resources for promoting the campaign.

“We will still go ahead with the poll even if we fail to raise HK$1.5 million,” he said. “Members of the civil society groups involved will probably have to pay for the expenses out of their own pockets.”

Sociologist Sing Ming of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology told HKFP that a reason why the campaign has a hard time gaining momentum is because the competition between Tsang and Carrie Lam takes the central stage of the election.

john tsang facebook video
John Tsang. File Photo: John Tsang, via Facebook.

“Other candidates such as ‘Long Hair’ are unlikely to make the cut, so the political reality limits public interest and support for the unofficial referendum,” he said.

The ‘lesser evil’ debate

Public debate on the election has focused on the “lesser evil” argument. Some pro-democracy supporters and politicians argue that Tsang is a “lesser evil” than Lam and should therefore receive support from pro-democracy Election Committee members.

Rejecting this argument, Ip said: “It should not be the answer [to Hong Kong’s democratic deficit] by saying that Tsang is not a bad choice because he is not going to adopt the governance style of incumbent leader Leung Chun-ying.”

Music teacher Patrick Leung is a volunteer of the campaign. He told HKFP that he regretted donating to Tsang after learning that the former finance chief advocates legislating Article 23 security law in his newly announced platform.

“I was lazy and didn’t study his platform carefully,” he said. “Hongkongers do not have a vote, so we should not accept Tsang and the small-circle election in which only 1,200 people can vote. We should try to make our voices heard outside the system.”

Carrie Lam son
Carrie Lam and her son. File Photo: HKFP/Kris Cheng.

But sociologist Sing Ming said that accepting the “lesser evil” argument may not necessarily hinder Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

“Realistically, a democratic breakthrough won’t happen in the short term. It will take a long time to build a stronger civil society. It will also depend on the situation in China such as the economy,” he said.

“Tsang has shown a willingness to defend Hong Kong’s core values, creating a stark contrast with Lam who appears more opportunistic.” Sing added that Lam may be able to mobilise public support for a more draconian Article 23 security law than what Tsang may propose.

“So in this context, choosing the lesser evil may be beneficial to a society that needs gradual democratisation, such as Hong Kong,” he said. “Tsang may provide a breathing space for Hong Kong’s democracy movement to evolve and develop.”

Past attempts

The unofficial vote is reminiscent of a similar campaign organised by Tai in 2014, when society was debating the ideal nomination method for choosing chief executive candidates. Around 790,000 people participated in the poll at the time, with proposals advocating “public nomination” – letting the public nominate candidates – gaining the most votes.

occupy central civil referendum
Benny Tai co-organised an unofficial referendum on political reform in June 2014.

Months after the poll, Beijing ruled that a 1,200-member nomination committee would vet candidates before a popular vote. The decision eventually led to the 79-day pro-democracy Occupy protests.

During last year’s Legislative Council election, Tai led a strategic voting “ThunderGo” campaign. He came under fire from pro-democracy supporters, who accused him of causing the pan-democrats to lose seats. Tai later admitted that he “underestimated” the impact of his plan.

The unofficial “public nomination” period runs from February 7 to February 22, and the unofficial referendum takes place online between March 10 and March 19. Physical polling stations will also be set up on March 12 and 19.

Meanwhile, the government’s nomination period runs from February 14 to March 1. The chief executive election is scheduled for March 26.

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Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.