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Hong Kong protest leaders halt planning vote, concede mistake

A pro-democracy protester sits on a barricade at a protest site in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on Oct. 26.
(Philippe Lopez / AFP/Getty Images)

In a move that highlighted the difficulty of consolidating Hong Kong’s “umbrella movement,” protest leaders on Sunday scrapped plans to conduct a poll asking supporters to vote on what the democracy movement’s next move should be as the sit-ins entered their fifth week.

The electronic vote was called off hours before it was to commence, with organizers citing differences of opinion among various protest subgroups and worries about the poll’s methodology and security.

“There’s lots of conflict and lots of different opinions, and after talking with occupiers in different protest sites, we understand their point of view and would like to suspend the voting,” said Alex Chow, leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students and one of the main protest organizers.

The electronic ballot was supposed to be held Sunday and Monday and was going to ask participants to vote on two motions regarding election procedures in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a framework known as “one country, two systems.” The Chinese territory is supposed to enjoy a high degree of political autonomy until 2047.

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The first poll question was whether China’s central government should withdraw its Aug. 31 decision that would in effect limit candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 chief executive election to two or three pre-screened candidates. The second was whether the local government should abolish so-called functional constituencies in the legislature in 2016 and allow for public nomination of candidates for the chief executive race in 2017.

Functional constituencies are professional or special interest groups, such as the insurance industry or the legal profession, that elect 30 out of Hong Kong’s 70 legislators.

Chow announced the move along with four other protest leaders at a late afternoon news conference, bowing deeply in contrition to assembled demonstrators. The group of leaders said that they would hold more discussions with protest supporters at the three sit-in sites and that the next step may or may not be a round of voting.

“I think it is important to truly respect the views of the occupiers and [that] we do not only pay lip service to that statement,” said Alan Leong, leader of the Civic Party, one of Hong Kong’s so-called pan-democratic parties that have supported the protests.

Leong said the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, which issued the Aug. 31 decision, should learn from the protest leaders’ example and not be afraid to backtrack or reconsider a decision.

“There is no decision that is immutable and nobody in power should really think that way,” Leong said. “If you are exercising your powers for the good of those who would be affected by such an exercise, then you should bring humility to your office and be humble enough to admit mistakes whenever there are mistakes to be admitted. We have done exactly that this afternoon.”

The move won plaudits from many protesters. Henry Li, a fresh Hong Kong University law graduate who was at one of the sit-in sites Sunday taking photos in cap and gown, said, “I think it’s the right decision to delay the vote because the logistics of it is problematic.”

Specifically, Li said plans to record voters’ Hong Kong identity card numbers as a bulwark against fraud could have backfired and put those who participated in danger.

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“I think that the system could be hacked,” he said. “If you have a readily available database of people who protested who obviously already disobeyed the law, it will be a potential threat if someone hacks the system.”

Although many demonstrators have some affiliation with one or another of the groups that have been at the vanguard of the protests, many others do not, giving the sit-ins a spontaneous and almost amorphous feel – and making it more difficult for protest leaders to unify the movement.

The associations and groups within the movement are extremely diverse and include the Federation of Students; another student group called Scholarism; an organization known as Occupy Central With Love and Peace; a group of 23 pan-democratic lawmakers; and a “united front in support of students’ civil disobedience,” an umbrella group encompassing 15 civic organizations.

“Because everybody comes out into the streets on their own, [protest leaders] have difficulty figuring out how to gather and represent the people’s voice,” said Li.

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Chow and others have raised the idea of persuading five members from the Legislative Council to resign to trigger a territory-wide by-election. That, they have suggested, would serve as a de facto referendum on the issues democracy protesters have been campaigning for.

“The Legislative Council should do something about it,” said Carmen Tang, a protester. “The councilors may resign and then force a referendum.”

Benny Tai, a leader of Occupy Central with Love and Peace, said protest leaders were exploring options and said he hoped Sunday’s move would help keep demonstrators’ morale up.

“By apologizing to our supporters about the mistakes we have made, I think that will rebuild the trust between us and the supporters,” he said. “I think the morale will be better after the decision.”

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Meanwhile this weekend, the anti-Occupy group Silent Majority for Hong Kong has started collecting signatures online and at hundreds of stations set up around the city in a bid to quantify opposition to the democracy movement. On Sunday evening, it announced it had obtained more than 650,000 signatures over the course of two days -- but also claimed that it experienced cyberattacks Saturday night originating from America and Europe.

As both pro- and anti-protest groups grasped for the next step forward, a group representing six journalist associations marched to the Wanchai police station headquarters Sunday to express their displeasure over assaults Saturday on several reporters.

On Saturday, journalists from broadcaster TVB and radio station RTHK were assaulted by counter-protest crowds, prompting RTHK to refuse to cover any further gatherings by the so-called blue-ribbon groups who are opposed to the democracy protests.

One reporter’s tie was torn off and a cameraman suffered scratches and bruises around his neck and face. A female reporter for RTHK was kicked several times and sent to the hospital. Authorities announced Monday that an unidentified 61-year-old man had been arrested in one of the attacks.

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Police have previously stated that counter-protest groups have been involved with or coordinated with triad gangs.

Marchers representing news unions handed a letter to police authorities condemning the assaults, asking authorities to deploy an appropriate level of force to ensure safety and to launch an investigation within the week. At least 24 journalists had been beaten up since the Occupy movement began more than three weeks ago, the group said.

Journalism groups said the assaults are the latest indication of the increasing threats to freedom of the press in Hong Kong.

The Apple Daily newspaper, which has openly supported the democracy protests, has had to contend with cyberattacks, protesters blocking its gate and assailants spilling soy sauce over stacks of the newspaper to prevent distribution in recent weeks.

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Hong Kong, which ranked 18th on the World Press Freedom Index when the scorecard was launched by Reporters Without Borders in 2002, has since dropped to 61st place.

Ap is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Julie Makinen in Beijing contributed to this report.


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