Hong Kong ‘patriots’ election casts doubt over democracy as city enters new era

Days before Hong Kong’s legislative council election, 15 months after it was supposed to be held, former legislator Ted Hui is on the phone from Adelaide railing against the government. In the southern Australian city he is far from the Hong Kong warrants for his arrest and instead in a place where, unlike many of his former colleagues, he can speak freely.

“For the Hong Kong people there are not many choices now but to accept illegitimate elections. The parliament is going to be a rubber stamp for Beijing and this election carries no democratic element at all.”

More than two years into a brutal crackdown on dissent by Beijing and its supporting government in Hong Kong, the city of 7.5 million people has been fundamentally changed. The pro-democracy movement has been crushed and its biggest advocates and fighters jailed, silenced, or sent fleeing overseas. Under a campaign dubbed “patriots run Hong Kong”, an overhaul of the electoral system has gutted the partial democracy Hong Kong once had, and made it effectively impossible for the opposition to win a majority.

“Anyone who’s not against the government is a ‘patriot’,” says Hui. “Anyone who doesn’t speak up against democracy and freedom is a ‘patriot’.”

The new system reduced the proportion of legislators Hong Kongers could directly elect from 53% to 22%. A restructured election committee, which appoints the chief executive from a Beijing-approved shortlist, now has the power to fill 40 of the 90 seats with its own members. The committee is comprised of 1,500 people chosen from among pre-vetted candidates by fewer than 5,000 eligible voters in September.

The new government vetting judges the past behaviour and current sincerity to ensure their genuine “patriotism” for Hong Kong’s ultimate rulers, the Chinese Communist Party. Just one candidate not considered strictly pro-establishment was elected to the committee, and numerous potential election candidates have already been disqualified.

Hong Kong authorities have issued arrest warrants for two other self-exiled activists who have made similar calls for Hongkongers to boycott or cast protest votes in the upcoming legislative polls under the city’s electoral laws, which they say apply internationally.

“These used to be spirited dynamic electoral competitions, and that was really special in Hong Kong,” says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a Chinese history professor at the University of California, Irvine. “But I think it’s going to one of these things – like a lot of things in Hong Kong these days – that used to be notable for their vibrance and activity but are now notable for their absence.”

Hui says the only choice now for people is to cast a blank or informal vote, or to boycott entirely.

Under laws passed in May, such calls are now illegal. At least three people have been arrested for allegedly sharing online messages to cast blanks, and there are arrest warrants for Hui and fellow legislator-in-exile, Yau Man-chun. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial saying “boycotts and blank ballots are one of the last ways for Hong Kongers to express their political views” drew warnings from the government of “necessary action” against the outlet for allegedly inciting others to not vote.

Conversely, earlier this year political parties were warned that failing to run candidates could be seen as a boycott, potentially breaching the national security law.

Yet the government is brooking no claims that the changes have dampened Hong Kong’s democracy. Last week the director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Xia Baolong, declared Hong Kongers were finally about to experience a real democracy, having wasted so much time “blindly seeking” the Western style.

“It brought social divisions, vicious fights, causing crises such as a disorderly society, an imbalanced economy and ineffective governance,” he said. “The Chinese people have never been so confident in the socialist democratic system with Chinese characteristics as they are today.”

The legislative council election was first scheduled for September 2020 but postponed for a year, citing safety concerns over the pandemic. It was postponed again after Beijing announced the overhaul.

Observers suggested postponement and changes might have been driven less by Covid than the 2019 elections for the lower-rung district councils, when all but one seat were won by pro-democracy candidates, embarrassing a government which was insisting such views were fringe.

Nine months later, the chief executive Carrie Lam announced the first postponement for the major election.

Hong Kong never obtained the universal suffrage promised at the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule. But it had a vibrant opposition and a robust political system allowing democratic participation at most levels of government. Civil society was strong, and demonstrations frequent.

But then the 2019 pro-democracy protests brought the city to a standstill, drawing as many as one in four Hong Kongers to the streets and rattling authorities. A brutal crackdown followed, then the national security law, outlawing anything authorities deem to be secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces.

Among the more than 130 arrested under the law were 47 candidates, veteran campaigners and serving legislators for holding unofficial election primaries, a common feature of Hong Kong politics but later classified as illegal. Most have been remanded in jail awaiting trial, alongside a growing list of political activists. The opposition camp resigned en masse in protest.

UK-based Hong Kong Watch and self-exiled Hong Kong activist Ray Wong launched a social media campaign “#Releasemycandidate” on Wednesday to call for a boycott of the elections and the release of the 47 candidates. Thirty-two of the candidates charged have remained behind bars for the past ten months after being denied bail.

The “#Releasemycandidate” hashtag was reposted by activists and politicians worldwide, including from the UK, Europe, Japan, Australia and the US.

“[T]he upcoming LegCo election doesn’t reflect the voices of Hongkongers and we demand the release of our candidates, the pro-democracy activists behind bars,” Hong Kong activist Joey Siu tweeted.

A sense of hopelessness, pessimism and fear now pervades the city. Of the prominent Hong Kongers the Guardian has interviewed in recent years most are now jailed or have fled overseas. Others decline to speak for fear they’ll be accused of foreign collusion – as has happened to others like jailed legislator Claudia Mo.

In recent months civil society groups and unions have disbanded and been accused of foreign collusion and sedition. The creation or broadcast of “subversive” content has been criminalised, and Hong Kong’s vaunted judiciary was told it should reflect Beijing’s will.

In his speech last week Xia appeared to send an ominous warning to those he deemed “anti-China-Hong Kong rebels who forget their ancestors and collude with external forces”.

“No matter where they flee, they will eventually be nailed to the pillar of shame of history and will be punished as they deserve,” he said.

Recent polling has predicted a record low turnout for Sunday of less than 50%, even with the government opening up voting to Hong Kong residents on the mainland for the first time. On Wednesday Lam told Chinese state media that a low voter turnout was both meaningless and a positive sign for her administration.

“There is a saying that when the government is doing well and its credibility is high, the voter turnout will decrease because the people do not have a strong demand to choose different lawmakers to supervise the government.”

Hui describes her comments as laughable. “The regime is trying to manage expectations so people know that it will be OK to have a low voting turnout,” he says.

“I believe people have lost interest totally in the elections. They don’t feel engaged at all. I’d say the majority of the people will decide not to vote.”

Emily Lau, a veteran pro-democracy politician, recently told CNBC Hong Kongers had become distressed and disillusioned. “We probably have lost our freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of demonstration, maybe not forever, but for many, many years,” she said.

With opposition already crushed, the results of the vote won’t make much of a difference, but people will still try to make quiet expressions of discontent, says Wasserstrom.

“It would be wrong to think of the Hong Kong story as over in that sense, but this is the kind of blow where something larger would probably need to change in the wider world in the way the CP governs as a whole for there to be a real shift.”

Additional reporting by Rhoda Kwan

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