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Hong Kong voter sentiment ahead of the September election
Christine Loh
8/3/2004

Hong Kong voters will go to the polls on September 12 to elect the third Legislative Council (LegCo) since 1997, when British rule ended. The voter turnout rate for the first post-handover election in May 1998 was a historic high at 53%. In that election, voters returned the pro-democracy politicians who chose not to join the appointed Provisional Legislature put in place by the Chinese Government. Meant to replace the elected 1995 legislature, the Provisional Legislature was also intended to thwart British efforts to expand the electoral base. During the second election in September 2000, 44% of voters favored the pro-democracy candidates, as support for that camp began to wane due to an internal split within Hong Kong's Democratic Party and as the previous anti-China factor began to subside.

The 2004 LegCo election approaches after seven years with the unpopular C. H. Tung as chief executive, and a year of very large public rallies against his policies. Also at issue is Beijing's decision to rule out universal suffrage for the election of the chief executive in 2007 and LegCo in 2008, despite the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (SCNPC) decision that those elections were Hong Kong's first opportunities to achieve universal suffrage under the Basic Law. Hong Kongers can directly elect 50% of their legislators in this year's election, making it critically important in terms of the potential to make a real impact on how the executive behaves in the future.

With so much controversy in the air and with political reform being a much more widely discussed issue than ever before in Hong Kong, voters have a lot to consider in the upcoming election. Candidacy nomination starts on July 22 and ends August 4, after which campaigning will swing into high gear. Civic Exchange, an independent non-profit think tank, is working with numerous surveying experts to track public opinion throughout the campaign period. Rolling polls will be carried out and released frequently from mid-August onwards, though earlier studies carried out in May and June have already provided much food for thought.

Likely voter turnout on September 12

Polls done in May and June showed voters have a very high intention to vote (75%-85%). Such a high intention is consistent with polls carried out prior to previous elections, although the final turnout rate was much lower (53% in 1998 and 44% in 2000). Voters say they have a positive intention to vote because it is the more socially desirable response. However, when there are controversies, the turnout rate tends to be higher, such as in 1998. The most recent example of this was the District Council election in November 2003, which took place after a after a July 1 rally where more than 500,000 people protested against the government's proposed Article 23 national security legislation. Voter turnout was 44% (as opposed to only 36% in 1999), and the election gave the pro-democracy camp solid wins. The 2004 LegCo election turnout could well approach or even exceed 53%, especially after the July rally where between 400,000 to 500,000 people marched for universal suffrage. The final turnout rate will depend on such factors as how well the candidates and parties campaign, and whether there are any unforeseen events that could tip the balance.

A frequent description used by those who think democracy must advance slowly in Hong Kong is that the people are apolitical and politically immature. The rallies of the past year have made the ‘apolitical' label unconvincing, while many surveys and studies of Hong Kong people's attitudes in fact show them to be mature and pragmatic.

A poll carried out for Civic Exchange by Wirthlin Worldwide Asia published on June 26, showed that Hong Kong voters go to the ballot box because they wanted to perform their civic duty (70%), exercise their civic rights (4%) and elect the candidate they wanted (16%). Even those who said they did not intend to vote knew exactly why they preferred to stay away – 49% said they were dissatisfied with legislators' performance or that politicians did not reflect their view. Furthermore, many voters plan to vote but remain undecided on whom to support. This should provide a sobering message for the candidates and parties. If they want more people to turn out and vote for them, they need to work harder to convince the disaffected that they can represent their views.

Will the elections be "free" and "fair"?

With news reports over the past three months on various types of pressure being put on employees or business associates of mainland organizations to vote for pro-government candidates, the degree of concern voters have over the fairness of the 2004 LegCo election is a pressing issue. Such reports include a suggestion that voters use their mobile phones to photograph their ballot as proof of how they voted as well as allegations of misuse of personal information to register voters by a women's center closely related to pro-government politicians.

In a poll conducted in June by the Hong Kong University's Public Opinion Program, a high proportion of respondents believed the election would be fair (65%) and free of corruption (70%). When asked specifically about whether they thought Beijing would intervene, 44% of the respondents replied "no" and 35% replied "yes", with 19% not being able to give an answer. Taking the responses together indicates that the majority of Hong Kongers still put their trust in the integrity of local institutions to maintain a free and fair election, though a not insubstantial number of people believe that there has been mainland interference. The message for the Hong Kong Government is that it should do everything possible to demonstrate to the people that it will vigorously investigate activities that affect a fair election and that it will ensure the balloting process is clean.

A survey specially designed to assess how Hong Kong people felt about the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (SCNPC) decision to rule out universal suffrage for 2007 and 2008 was conducted at the end of May 2004, more than a month after the event. The data from the survey provided useful insights to assess whether and to what extent the SCNPC decision may affect voter behavior. The decision may well have an important impact on voters as the majority of respondents were concerned about the negative impact of the decision not only on Hong Kong society as a whole (64%), but 19% of them also felt that the decision affected them personally. Among those who did not express concern about the SCNPC decision, 24% of them felt some kind of resignation and helplessness and not that they were unconcerned. There was also a drop in the overall confidence level in the "one country, two systems" policy, partly due to frustration with the Tung administration's inability to prevent the suffrage decision. Those concerned about the SCNPC decision showed a higher propensity to vote, and are unlikely to vote for pro-government allies.

Conclusion

Hong Kong people want their voices to be heard by both the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities (most of them thought their views had been ignored by the SCNPC in making their decision to rule out universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008). Along side the desire for better economic conditions, poll results showed that Hong Kongers also wanted universal suffrage. The Hong Kong Government and Beijing's frequently stated position that Hong Kong people are dissatisfied because of a poor economy has altogether missed an important issue for voters – Hong Kong people do want the right to choose their local leaders.

While Hong Kong understood that Beijing's view on this was critical, they also indicated that they had a direct role to play. Perhaps this was the reason why so many people had turned up for various rallies over the course of the past year. By repeatedly demonstrating their concern, the people of Hong Kong appear to have embarked on a self-help democracy movement. After the somber July 1, 2003 rally and the almost euphoric July 1, 2004 rally, the date may well become an annual event for civil society to call for better governance and universal suffrage.

Christine Loh is the CEO of Civic Exchange, an independent non-profit think tank, which has worked with numerous surveying experts to track public opinion throughout the campaign period.

This article appears on AFAR with permission from The Jamestown Foundation, China Brief.

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