Police shut down voting stations for an unofficial referendum on genuine democratic elections in Macau, a special administrative region of China, and detained four organizers for several hours last week.
The city's Office for Personal Data Protection alleged that the collection of personal information for the referendum went against Macau's constitution known as the Basic Law because it does not endorse any sort of referendum. Organizers, who had only just launched the referendum a few hours before, accused authorities of political suppression, arguing that voters voluntarily provided personal data for verification.
Macau, a former Portuguese colony, will elect its chief executive on Aug. 31. The only candidate is Fernando Chui Sai-on, the incumbent running for re-election. A committee of 400 representatives of social and political sectors, including culture, religion, labor, commerce and industry, as well as Beijing's representatives are allowed to vote. The rest of Macau's 270,000 eligible voters have no say in the selection of the city's top leader.
To express their discontent with the current undemocratic political system, three pro-democracy civic groups organized a referendum for the public to express their wish for universal suffrage by 2019 and to assess the extent of public support for Fernando Chui’s re-election. Unlike Hong Kong’s constitutional documents, there is no written promise for eventual universal suffrage of the chief executive in Macau Basic's Law. Pro-democracy activists worry that Macau citizens may never vote for the city’s leader.
Over 7,000 Macau citizens have voted in the referendum so far. The organizers set up an online platform and five on-the-street voting stations to be open from Aug. 24 to Aug. 30.
Fei Te, a columnist from citizen media platform inmediahk.net, argued that police did not have any legal ground for the crackdown:
Strange as it seems, the judgment of the Macau Court of Final Appeal stipulated that, even though civil referendum is not a right contemplated by the law, the law does not prohibit referendum; residents ‘are allowed’ to do so. Therefore, the authorities disregard the ruling but threaten organizers and potential voters, to minimize voting turnout as far as possible.
Fei believed the Macau government fears that the referendum would evolve into another wave of anti-government mobilization after the campaign against the “bill of greed”, a bill that would have compensated high-ranking officials after they leave office and exempt the head of government from criminal liability during his or her term. Around 20,000 people — about 4 percent of the city's entire population — took to the streets in May 2014 against the bill and successfully forced the government to scrap it:
[…] the Macau government had lost confidence in its authority. In fact, the questions in the referendum are only, “Do you agree the chief executive should be directly elected in 2019”, and “Do you have confidence in Chui to be the next leader”. People are free to choose “No” and “Yes” respectively. A confident candidate should not be worried. However, some people are not willing to accept the result. They worry that this will bring about another anti-government movement after the “bill of greed”.
Chou Kwok-ping, a scholar and an advocate of the referendum, compared the responses to civic referendums in Hong Kong and Macau and concluded that all rulers supported by an undemocratic system are afraid of any sort of referendum. Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have campaigned throughout the summer for the right to choose the candidates for the city's next chief executive election in 2017, while Beijing insists a committee pre-elect them:
今次公投與香港今年6月舉行的公投一樣，引起建制的鞭撻，原因眾說紛紜: 有的說是北京要避免西方民主理念在港澳地區擴散，有的指希望嚇窒市民、特別是公務員不敢去投票，推低投票數字，影響民間公投的認受性。但有一點肯定的是，中港澳三地的建制派，對「公投」有條件反射式的抗拒： 2007年，台灣民進黨試圖在2008年總統大選，同時舉行公投決定是否加入聯合國。由於決議有台獨色彩，引起中國政府強烈反對，港澳的建制亦步亦趨。自此之後，「公投」成為中港澳建制派的敏感詞。
The pro-government forces from Hong Kong and Macau condemned the civil referendums respectively in both cities. The reason is inconclusive. Some say Beijing does not want Western democratic beliefs to spread across Hong Kong and Macau. Some say they want to deter people, especially civil servants, from voting and thus minimize the voting turnout. This can destroy the legitimacy of the referendum. But one thing is certain: pro-Beijing political forces in Hong Kong and Macau reflexively resist against a referendum because of the history of referendums in Taiwan: in 2007, the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan planned to hold a referendum to ask people for their support in joining the United Nations during the 2008 presidential election. The result of the referendum would imply the de facto independence of Taiwan and triggered strong opposition from Beijing. The pro-Beijing political forces in Hong Kong and Macau followed suit [and condemned the referendum in Taiwan]. Since then, “referendum” has become a sensitive word for Beijing and pro-Beijing political forces in both Hong Kong and Macau.
China considers Taiwan, which is democratic, a territory and not independent.
The police crackdown, however, will only intensify the social and political discontent against the unequal distribution of wealth in the gambling city. The number of protesters keeps increasing in annual rallies on Labour Day on May 1, China's National Day on October 1 and Macau's Reunification Day on December 20 as more and more Macau citizen come to believe that a democratic system is the solution to social injustice.
Ronald Yick is a volunteer editor for inmediahk.net, which is quoted extensively in this post.