Tea Leaf Nation

‘Let 1.3 Billion Vote’

What would really happen if Chinese citizens could cast ballots in Hong Kong's referendum?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Democracy, meet the smart phone. Starting June 20, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers have gone to virtual polls, infuriating Beijing. Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), a protest group that advocates election of the nominally autonomous Chinese city’s chief executive via universal suffrage, held a combined online and offline vote on Hong Kong’s future from June 20 to 29 that OCLP claimed has drawn over 738,000 electronic ballots so far, most via mobile app. The electronic ballot, which requires entry of a Hong Kong ID number, phone number, and a confirmation the voter is a permanent resident, allows the choice between three revisions to Hong Kong election rules, rather than the current system that cedes significant power to industry groups called "functional constituencies," which the mainland government supports. Chinese state media promptly went on the offensive against the nonbinding vote, but online response from mainlanders shows just how much of a stitch Beijing is in. 

In particular, the reliably nationalist state-run publication Global Times may have tactically erred when it ran an unsigned June 23 Chinese-language editorial titled, "Even If Hong Kong’s Illegal Referendum Had More Participants, It Wouldn’t Have 1.3 Billion." The editorial called the referendum "laughable" and in violation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which has governed Hong Kong ever since British colonists returned it to Chinese control in 1997. The editorial argued that the Basic Law "reflects the will of an entire nation" and concludes that "on the core question of Hong Kong governmental reform, 1.3 billion Chinese have equal right to speak," versus a population of 7.2 million in Hong Kong. (OCLP organizers have said that while the vote has no legal effect, neither is it illegal.) In language left out of the English version widely cited in Western media, the Times declared that the cards in the hands of the opposition "are all zeroes." 

Chinese mainlanders may feel similarly hamstrung. Given that Chinese citizens lack the franchise, and thus have no clear mechanism to opine on the Hong Kong question, Beijing’s insistence they have a "right to speak" is problematic. The Times seemed to sense as much, also noting that there would be "great chaos" if each Chinese locality were to undertake a referendum of its own. The argument likewise met widespread derision on Weibo, China’s major microblogging platform, with many users lobbing a favorite insult at the Times, calling it "Global Turd," which in Mandarin Chinese sounds quite similar to Global Times. As one user from Beijing challenged, "If you’ve got the chops, let 1.3 billion vote." Otherwise, "don’t count me among them." 

Particularly pugnacious toward the Times was Li Chengpeng, an erstwhile soccer columnist turned social critic who has over 7 million Weibo followers and in 2011 ran for the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp legislature, as an independent (read: non-Communist Party) candidate. (The election was held in the dead of night; Li lost.) On June 23, Li took to Weibo to issue an oblique complaint that never mentioned the Times, the referendum, or Hong Kong by name. But its intent was clear: "You talk about us 1.3 billion people. How come you only think of your families when you divvy up the spoils," Li asked, alluding to the fact that many party officials, including those in the highest echelons of power, use their influence to enrich their families. He continued, "You think the people are a powerful force behind you, but when we need you to help fill out a form or put your chop on a document, you look at us as if we were beggars."

Li knows of what he writes; according to Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, proper election papers weren’t issued to candidate Li before the NPC election, despite what Li said were daily inquiries. Many readers likely sympathize, given that Chinese state media itself has reported that the average citizen must apply for 103 permits in his or her lifetime. 

The majority of the 2,700-plus users responding to Li’s post wrote in support, but they did not confine their criticism to government efficiency. Instead, many who hailed from the mainland took the opportunity to criticize the Chinese government in surprisingly stark terms. Echoing a number of users, one from the large eastern city of Hangzhou wrote, "If the party wants to represent 1.3 billion people, it first must let us vote." One from the inland metropolis of Chongqing assumed the party’s imagined perspective: "I have thousands of tanks, hundreds of thousands of special police, millions of soldiers, and 80 million disciples. But I am still afraid to let people vote." Another user from Beijing complained, as if to the government, "The ‘people’ are just a pair of underpants; when they are useful you use them to cover your shame, but [when you’ve got a good opportunity] you can’t rip them away fast enough."

Many comments seized on the fact that Chinese citizens "are represented," but only in the passive sense; citizens receive nominal representation in China’s NPC, but do not select those who sit. One user from the coastal city of Fuzhou admitted, "I have never used my political rights; there’s all this representing, but I don’t know what it all means." In a comment sure to raise party hackles, one user from Shanwei, a prefecture-level city in the famously independent-minded province of Guangdong, wrote, "A unified China doesn’t help me individually. I don’t want a country that big. Each province can go be independent, and we can live together with our differences."

Some opinions were more tendentious. They included sharp attacks on Chinese authority, and on Li himself; one mainland user insisted the people of Hong Kong were "enslaved" and still "far from waking up," while others hurled unprintable epithets, with more mild ones telling him to "go to Taiwan already" because the mainland "isn’t fit for you" or criticizing him for walking "an evil path." Others penned apparently well-meaning warnings to Li that he may be arrested on charges of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," the same fate that befell activist lawyer Pu Zhiqiang on June 13 for speaking out about the June 1989 assault on pro-democracy demonstrators in central Beijing’s Tiananmen square.

A m
inority felt Beijing would emerge from any country-wide referendum a winner: One user from the southeastern city of Suzhou wagered that "out of 1.3 billion people, there are at least 700 million willing to stay the course." But such sentiments were few and far between. Of course, those who chose to comment on Li’s post may be a particularly noisy super-minority among China’s masses. Or they may speak for a silenced majority. For all their bluster toward little Hong Kong’s election, party authorities cannot know for sure what the mainland masses think.

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.

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