Political threats to the 2019 Macau Civil Vote on Chief Executive Election
This article is based on my presentation at the Taiwanese g0v Summit given on 05 December 2020. There is a related article on cyberattacks against the vote.
This article and the presentation only represent my view but not that of the organiser of the 2019 vote.
Voting is a peaceful way to manifest a collective will. However, the challenges for the civil society to organise votes have increased over the years. The civil votes in Hong Kong have inspired the series of votes in Macau. The votes in Hong Kong usually receive great attention from the international news media. Generally speaking, the international news media are not so interested in the activities of Macau’s civil society.
I am responsible for the technical parts of the Macau votes listed above. On the political part, except the 2019 vote which I am presenting, I was also the person-in-charge of the organisers of the Macau votes listed here.
The 2014 Civil Referendum was a rare occasion in which a pro-democracy campaign in Macau received some international attention. A voting population below 10,000 people looks small. However, the result was already remarkable after taking Macau’s population and the state of Macau’s civil society into account.
In 2019, again, there was a Chief Executive Election with only one candidate. It was the time for a civil voting event. The organiser of the 2019 vote was the New Macau Association (NMA). The NMA was a major political organisation in the pro-democracy movement in Macau. I served as the President of the NMA before. But I left the NMA in 2017. This time, my role in the vote is an external technologist only. The NMA is responsible for the vote legally and politically in Macau.
Based on the experience in the 2014 vote, the volunteers and the leaders of the organiser wished that the vote could take place in a safe and low-risk environment. As a result, this vote was not named a “referendum”. Also, no ID data would be collected. Macau phone numbers were the only means of verification. The motion had nothing to do with the sole Chief Executive candidate. People were only asked if they wanted to have genuine universal suffrage.
Following the cessation of the cyberattack attempts, the political threats gave a lethal blow to the 2019 vote.
Two days after the vote opened, the organiser — as a political organisation — had a chance to meet with the sole Chief Executive candidate Mr Ho Iat Seng. I was not at the meeting. But according to reliable resources, in response to the Association’s question about universal suffrage, Mr Ho mentioned that the New Macau Association was “conducting a survey”. Ho asked the Association to “go forward with the survey”. It seemed that the future Chief Executive had no problem with the vote, contrary to the situation in 2014. But was the vote in the political safe zone?
China did not openly demonise the vote through its mouthpieces. However, in many Macau WeChat groups, the stalls for promoting the vote were distorted as promoting the on-going protests in Hong Kong. Let me give you a bit of the background. The mainstream population of Macau is against the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong. Macau people feared that the sentiment in Hong Kong would reach Macau. Therefore, in Macau’s context, framing the vote as a pro-Hong Kong event was an effective strategy to smear the vote.
For several days, the volunteers at the promotional stalls experienced verbal and physical assault. In the second week, the vote organiser cancelled the remaining stalls.
Although the cyberattacks have stopped and online voting went on, the vote could not withstand the strong Chinese intervention. A core member of the leadership of the vote organiser travelled to mainland China on business. I am not at the liberty to reveal what happened exactly since the vote organiser does not wish to discuss the incident any further. But I can reveal that China presented two demands. Voting had to stop. And, the press conference on the results of the vote scheduled for the Chief Executive Election day had to be cancelled.
The reason is also relevant to the developments in Hong Kong. On the day of the Chief Executive Election, the announcement of an alternative number would make the outside world perceive that Macau’s pro-democracy voice was connecting to the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. In 2014, the international news media substantially reported the Civil Referendum figures to contrast those of the official Chief Executive Election.
Politically, the future Chief Executive did not oppose the vote in a meeting. However, China decided to suppress the vote. Cancellation of promotional stalls was not enough. China wanted to halt voting. Voting was closed prematurely. The planned result announcement event was called off. Instead, the publicity of the vote was lowered to announcing the results in a press statement.
Results and implication
In the end, six-thousand people voted. The overwhelming majority was in favour of genuine universal suffrage. The vote dataset is still available for download, as long as this website has not been taken down by the vote organiser.
From my observations, the suppression was discreet yet powerful. I guess the reason behind it was to avoid attracting more attention. Technically, they pursued an attack pattern that was more time-consuming and had a lower success rate. Politically, the 2014-style demonization did not happen. However, the incitement of violence against the promotional stalls of the vote was rampant on social media. China resorted to hostage-taking after all other attempts to bring down the vote have failed.
The impact of the premature closure of the vote could be profound. The general public and the journalists in Macau might lose faith in similar voting initiatives. It would be extremely difficult to organise a credible civil or unofficial vote in Macau in a short period of time.
Reflection and the lessons learnt
Concerning the organisation of the vote, the intention of extending the voting period is to give more time to the promotion work. However, a longer voting period also gave the oppresses more time to carry out the suppression and try different strategies. Thus, the attack surface of the vote is enlarged.
In addition, the resilience of the leadership of the vote organiser is also a key factor. In 2014, I was arrested by the Macau police. The authorities had to follow the criminal procedure in Macau. Once someone set foot on the mainland of China, written rules would virtually be non-existent. So, a vote organiser should make up its mind how determined it is to host a successful and how well it prepares its members for security awareness.
One might ask when would Macau have its next civil vote. I think unlikely in a short period of time unless the motion is super bored. In a broader view, I seriously wonder if Hong Kong could have the next civil referendum. The enforcement of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, in practice, has ruined the predictability of the law. The legality or illegality of an act could be up to the authorities’ creative interpretation.