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In Unofficial Referendum, Hong Kong Voters Demand Change


Residents of Hong Kong are pushing for more say over how they are governed. Results are in today on a referendum organized by democracy advocates aimed at giving Hong Kong voters power over choosing their own leader. Hundreds of thousands of residents casted ballots over the last 10 days. The vote is non-binding, but pro-democracy leaders hope it will apply pressure on China's Communist Party, which, in any event, has denounced the vote. Joining us to tell us more is NPR's Anthony Kuhn, he's in Hong Kong. Good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Give us a little background before we get into this referendum about the relationship between mainland China and Hong Kong.

KUHN: Right, it was every 17 years ago tomorrow that Hong Kong, which used to be a British colony reverted to Chinese rule. And the terms of the deal were that Hong Kong could keep its capitalist system, including a Western-style separation of powers and independent press and judiciary for 50 years. And Hong Kong residents were also promised that they could start electing their own leaders in 2017. The issue is how they nominate the candidates for that position. Right now the law says that all the nominations must be made by a committee and that committee is basically composed of pro-Beijing loyalists. So the referendum called for Hong Kong people to directly nominate the candidates for their own leaders.

MONTAGNE: And who exactly organized this vote?

KUHN: The organizers are a movement called Occupy Central. And as their name implies, they plan to occupy the city's financial district if Beijing puts together a plan for elections, which they say does not meet international standards. And basically this group has the support of Hong Kong's pro-democracy politicians.

MONTAGNE: But again, the vote itself, this referendum, it's not binding.

KUHN: That's correct, it's unofficial and Hong Kong's basic law does not say anything about referendums. It's basically just, you know, to show what the people think about it.

MONTAGNE: It's a political tactic.

KUHN: That's right. It's to tell Beijing that people in Hong Kong want an election in which they have a real choice. And I think the message is clear. Nearly 800,000 people voted in a city of 7 million and Hong Kong's top two officials have made remarks to the effect that this is a serious matter and the referendum's message is not to be ignored.

MONTAGNE: Well, Beijing is not ignoring it. In fact, they were very much against this referendum. What's the official reaction now?

KUHN: The official reaction has been critical and even scornful. And some media have warned of dire consequences if protesters occupy the central business district. One paper even warned that the People's Liberation Army might have to come out and restore order. Before that, they set the tone with an official policy paper that said that whatever autonomy Hong Kong enjoys is at Beijing's discretion, it can be revoked. And to opposition leaders that is, you know, a betrayal of the terms of the handover and, you know, they want to say you cannot treat Hong Kong just like any other city. There was a promise of autonomy that has to be respected.

MONTAGNE: And where does it go from here?

KUHN: Well, the atmosphere here is tense and politicized. And tomorrow organizers say at least 150,000 people will turn out for pro-democracy street protests as they have had every year since the handover at this time. In some years, they have been able to make Beijing step back. They may be able to make Beijing say that, you know, we miscalculated public opinion in Hong Kong. But right now Beijing has been taking a hard line on dissent in politics. And it's pretty hard to see how they would back down right now.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Hong Kong. Thanks very much.

KUHN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.