Hong Kong students observe the U.S. elections for lessons to take back home.
By Wenxiong Zhang
On Election Day 2012, Francis Lee shivered under his gray jacket in the cold wind that blew past Public School 102, one of the polling sites in Elmhurst, Queens. Lee trotted towards a middle-aged man headed for the polls.
“Good evening sir, please vote for the Democratic candidate, Grace Meng!” said Lee, waving a campaign leaflet.
“I am a Republican,” the man said as he brushed right past Lee, ignoring the leaflet.
Lee turned around, shrugged and laughed with his friends. “We don’t really know what she is promoting,” he said of Meng, who later that night won her bid to become New York state’s first Asian-American representative in Congress.
Indeed, Lee and the nine other students with him on a blustery U.S. election night knew almost nothing at all about Meng – or the American political process, for that matter. All are students at universities in Hong Kong, who visited the U.S. this month to observe the election process, as a prelude to Hong Kong’s first direct election of a chief executive, the city’s top job, in 2017.
Lee, 21, is a China business student at City University of Hong Kong. He and the others in the group spent a week in the U.S., hosted by New Youth Forum, a Hong Kong student-run political group.
When Britain turned its colony of Hong Kong over to China in 1997, China agreed to honor Hong Kong autonomy under a “one country, two systems” formula that would preserve greater political freedoms in Hong Kong. In fact, one political process is set to become more democratic in 2017, when all eligible voters can choose Hong Kong’s chief executive, a post now elected by just 1,100 people, many of them business and industrial leaders.
Exactly how those 2017 elections will be carried out is still not known, though, and that’s one reason why government and law student Celeste Lo, who studies at the University of Hong Kong, wanted to see how the U.S. does it.
“This is a chance for us to really defend our rights from legislative and administrative levels,” said Lo, who was observing her second U.S. presidential election with the New Youth Forum program.
The group visited several Washington institutions, such as the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank and Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer advocacy organization. In New York this week, there were more meetings – and an election day visit to Times Square, which provided a photo op with an actor masquerading as President Obama. Francis Lee gleefully posed for a picture, but then declared. “I hope Romney is going to win this election.”
Then they were off to Queens, home to much of New York City’s Chinese population. They visited the office of Grace Meng, a Taiwanese-American, and agreed to hand out her leaflets at the Public School 102 polling place, to get a taste of election volunteer work.
When they arrived at the school, the Hong Kong students were told to observe the election rule of staying at least 100 feet away from a polling place when handing out campaign material. It was early evening, cold, and few people passed by.
In fact, the voting crowds were so thin that every time a person did show up, the students broke into a soft cheer. Eric Tong, a sophomore studying management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said he was surprised.
“I thought the election would be much more intense. People here are not as involved in politics as people in Hong Kong,” Tong said.
But the American process looked friendlier than Hong Kong’s, said Felix Li, a junior in business studies at the City University of Hong Kong. Li said guards and cameras at polling sites in Hong Kong’s legislative elections suggest more suspicion and fierce competition. “In Hong Kong, some narrow-minded people always try to model a uniform political view, rather than a diversified and integrated one. If they can’t make it, then they quit from the game,” Li said.
Rainy Chan, who studies Chinese literature at Hong Kong University, was not impressed with the leafleting job the students were given.
“This is not efficient to inform people,” said Chan, who noted that leafleting wasn’t productive in Hong Kong, either, “because people don’t take these fliers.” Nevertheless, Chan tucked a few Grace Meng flyers into her bag, to take home as souvenirs.
Eventually the Hong Kong visitors were taken into P.S. 102 and down to the basement gym where voters cast their ballots. Though they could not enter the actual polling space, they did question some voters as they left. When Francis Lee asked a couple of Chinese voters whom they had chosen, they told him “They voted for Grace, because she is a Chinese,” and her opponent was not, he said.
That struck Lee as strange. “In Hong Kong people voted for parties,” and for the policies promised by those parties, he said.
Anna Leung, a language studies and translation major at the Open University of Hong Kong, found the up-close view of American democracy interesting.. “We saw how those rules work here, but it is not sure if they will still work in Hong Kong,” Leung said.
Joe Zhao, the staffer for Grace Meng who met with the Hong Kong students, said the campaign was happy to have the foreign volunteers help with polling place leafleting.
“I hope they could bring what they learn here back to their places,” Zhao said.