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Hong Kong’s “patriots-only” election

Voters turned out in record-low numbers for Hong Kong’s first legislative election after China revamped the city’s electoral system

Election workers empty a ballot box to count votes in Hong Kong on Sunday. AP Photo/Kin Cheun

Hong Kong’s “patriots-only” election
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Pro-Beijing candidates won all but one of the 90 legislative seats up for grabs Sunday in Hong Kong’s first legislative election since China tightened its control of the city’s electoral system. No pro-democracy camp members ran, as the reforms ensured only “patriots” would rule.

Amid government officials’ appeals to vote and pro-democracy activists’ calls to boycott the election, only about 1.35 million citizens cast ballots. Voter turnout plunged to a historic low of 30.2 percent, a sign of citizens’ rejection of an election that deprived them of democracy.

The electoral overhaul cut the number of directly elected seats in the legislature and added a vetting process to screen out pro-democracy candidates with no appeal or judicial review possible. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s top legislative body, introduced the reforms in March, marking the regime’s latest attempt to squelch opposition in Hong Kong.

Sunday’s legislative election was also the first to take place since Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020. In the wake of the law that criminalizes dissent, authorities charged and detained scores of prominent pro-democracy leaders. Other activists have gone into exile or quit politics. Many civil society groups—including unions, political parties, religious organizations, and a pro-democracy newspaper—have also disbanded.

On Sunday, Hong Kong deployed 10,000 police officers to prevent people from demonstrating on the streets. Authorities also watched for protests online. They arrested 10 people in past weeks for online posts allegedly inciting others to cast blank or invalid votes or to boycott the election. Under the revamped electoral system, such incitement is a criminal offense that carries up to three years in prison.

Paralleling government efforts to boost voter turnout, public transportation companies offered free rides on buses, trains, and trams to polling places, but critics say the free transit backfired, since most polling stations are already within walking distance from voters’ homes. Citizens took the offer to pack subway stations, malls, and amusement parks but left polling stations largely empty.

Inside a church in Tsim Sha Tsui, about 150 Christians prayed for the election during a worship service. Leading corporate prayer, the speaker prayed that the “election would seek to fight for and protect the best interests of the community in Hong Kong.” He added, “In this season of continued anxiety over the political atmosphere and changes in our city, we pray that Christians would be a non-anxious presence pointing to the hope we have in Jesus.”

Sarah Au, a member of that church, boycotted the election. She considered voting an endorsement of the reform system that left her with no candidate she could choose with a clear conscience. The candidates were already “chosen or elected by the government and they represent certain kinds of opinions … that I don’t agree with,” said Au, whose name WORLD changed to protect her from government reprisal. The tech worker voted in past elections, but the pro-democracy candidates she elected have since been disqualified by the regime.

A police officer stands guard outside a polling station in Hong Kong.

A police officer stands guard outside a polling station in Hong Kong. AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Voting in the election is “a big absurdity” for pro-democracy citizens, “because this is a regression of democracy,” said Wilson Chan, a theology professor whose name WORLD also changed in this story. He didn’t plan to vote either. He pointed to how Beijing reduced the number of directly elected seats: Citizens now elect only 20 of the legislature’s 90 seats, whereas half of the previous 70-seat legislature was directly elected by the people.

The revamped system also created more inequality among voters, as most had one vote, while some had up to four votes. The legislative election consisted of three constituencies: direct elections filled 20 seats; typically pro-Beijing special interest groups chose 30 seats; and a pro-Beijing election committee elected 40 seats from its 1,448 members. Citizens had one vote in the direct elections but had more if they also belonged in the other constituencies. In the previous 70-seat legislature, only half were reserved for pro-Beijing special interest groups.

Sunday’s poll stood in stark contrast to Hong Kong’s last direct elections in November 2019, which saw a record-high turnout rate of 71 percent and a landslide victory for the pro-democracy camp. Nearly 3 million citizens voted in the election for district councils, the only government bodies completely chosen by direct elections. Pro-democracy candidates won 388 seats, while pro-Beijing candidates won only 59 seats.

But the Hong Kong government purged the district councils of pro-democracy members by imposing an oath-taking requirement in July. As district councilors had to pledge allegiance to the government and vow to uphold the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s mini-constitution), most pro-democracy members resigned or were disqualified.

While the regime has stifled Hong Kongers’ dissent, exiled pro-democracy activists spoke up. Nathan Law and Ted Hui, former legislators exiled in the United Kingdom and Australia respectively, posted messages on social media urging Hong Kongers to boycott the election or cast blank votes. Hong Kong officials issued arrest warrants for the two and five other overseas activists.

Calling for the release of the detained activists who would have been the people’s choice in the legislative election, Ray Wong, an exiled activist in Germany, launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #ReleaseMyCandidate. The initiative, which the U.K.-based human rights group Hong Kong Watch backed, referred to the 47 pro-democracy leaders whom authorities charged with subversion. Their alleged offense: participating in an unofficial primary election in July 2020. The 47 await trial—33 of whom are already behind bars—and could face up to life imprisonment.

Carrie Lam

Carrie Lam AP Photo/Vincent Yu

On Monday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a statement that the “smooth formation” of the legislature “through elections manifests broad representation, political inclusiveness, balanced participation and fair competition of the new electoral system.” Her remarks came after the State Council of China published white papers on Hong Kong’s “democratic progress” and China’s “democracy that works.”

But Beijing is engaged in an extensive propaganda campaign in redefining democracy, Law noted in his New York Times op-ed. By claiming Hong Kong’s election to be successful and democratic, the regime is propelling the propaganda, according to Law. “The more that Beijing’s narratives gain traction, the more China’s campaign to undermine traditional democratic systems and values around the world will succeed.”


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