A symbolic vote in Hong Kong sparks real anger in Beijing

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Audio Transcript: Carol Hills: There's an experiment in democracy taking place in China right now. More than 700,000 people have already cast their votes in an informal poll, a referendum, held in Hong Kong, on how the territories residents should be allowed to choose their own leader. It's just a symbolic vote, but China's communist rulers are not amused. Beijing is determined to keep control over who rules the former British colony. David Wertime is following the vote and the reaction to it in China. He's an editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. David Wertime: It has no legally binding effect. The intent is once electors have made their choice between the three possibilities, none of which can be interpreted as pro-Beijing, the one most popular possibility will be put forth for a vote on the island. Now again, as you say, this is a bit more of a survey than anything else. In particular, it's being held online. Voters can vote using a smartphone app. Participation has actually been quite high, and I think quite a bit higher than the organizers originally expected. And even though it's obviously a small number, it's certainly enough to get the attention of mainland China's authorities. Hills: So in some way it's kind of needling the central government in Beijing, saying we want a more direct way to elect the person who runs Hong Kong. That's the idea, isn't it? Wertime: I think that's right. It's certainly a statement to Beijing, and it's also a statement, I think, internally. This shows that whatever saber rattling Beijing may engage in, this can be organized. Again, both online and offline at polling stations, a couple dozen give or take around the city. So it's certainly, this is something that Beijing looks down upon. On June 23rd, a state run outlet called the Global Times issued an editorial that said that this was laughable and illegal. So clearly they are paying attention. Hills: Why is Beijing even reacting? Doesn't it sort of suggest that they're sort of threatened by even a sort of social media discussion about a change in how the head of Hong Kong is elected? Wertime: If indeed this is a vote which has absolutely no effect whatsoever, you would think that Beijing would feel confident in ignoring it. But instead they've gone on the offensive. And it's interesting to note the June 23rd Global Times editorial, which took aim at this referendum, was also issued in English. This is clearly a case where they want international attention on this issue. And I think there's a real risk that it backfires because obviously they're not trying to win, or were not successfully winning, hearts and minds here. And I think, what it speaks to of course is the fact that you actually have a hard count. Whatever its imperfections, the fact is that this election allows people to be counted. And Beijing, mainland China, has no such mechanism. Then you have something separate, which is the social media discussion within Chinese cyberspace, where basically anybody can participate. And you certainly don't see hundreds of thousands of people participating, but those who are choosing to speak out are, in many cases, poking fun at Beijing, or at the very least, poking fun at the Global Times approach to managing this. Hills: Are you getting any defenders of the current system, and defenders of the government in the social media chat about it? Wertime: There certainly are defenders, some who say that if an election were held the majority would choose to stay the course. Others, you know, who have leveled ad hominem attacks at those who question the Beijing line. But I think there's always suspicion as to whether those voices are actually real or are members of the so-called 50 cent party, which means they're paid by the government to espouse pro-government views. So it's always hard to tell. You always have to read the tea leaves, so to speak, when you deal with China's social media. But it certainly does seem that there is a strong strand of discussion that is very skeptical toward the argument that if 1.3 billion people could vote it would be a slam dunk in favor of keeping Hong Kong close. Hills: David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. He specializes in social media. Thank you so much, David. Wertime: Thanks so much.