Hong Kong Election Delayed After Disqualifications, Arrests, Professor’s Firing

Hong Kong’s government announced on Friday that September’s Legislative Council elections would be postponed for one year, confirming earlier reports and signals from establishment figures. The move was ostensibly based on the deterioration of the pandemic situation in Hong Kong, which Chief Executive Carrie Lam said earlier this week is “on the verge of a large-scale community outbreak, which may lead to a collapse of our hospital system and cost lives, especially of the elderly.” Critics argue, however, that the delay is intended primarily to avert a repeat of the sweeping opposition victory in last November’s district council elections. The announcement followed a series of other steps toward that end this week, including the disqualification of 12 pro-democracy candidates; the arrests of four young activists, with warrants issued for another six based overseas; and the firing by Hong Kong University of Benny Tai, a tenured law professor who was a key organizer of the 2014 Occupy protests and has been credited as a key architect of the pro-democracy camp’s recent and planned electoral success. These blows in turn came against the backdrop of wider campaigns to tame the territory’s education, publishing, media, and other sectors after massive, broad-based protests against erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the subsequent imposition of a new and controversial National Security Law.

The Associated Press’ Zen Soo reported on the election delay:

The Hong Kong government is invoking an emergency ordinance in delaying the elections. Lam said the government has the support of the Chinese government in making the decision to hold the elections on Sept. 5, 2021.

[…] “We want to ensure fairness and public safety and health, and need to make sure the election is held in an open, fair and impartial manner. This decision is therefore essential,” she said.

The postponement is a setback for the pro-democracy opposition, which was hoping to capitalize on disenchantment with the current pro-Beijing majority to make gains. A issued a statement ahead of the announcement accusing the government of using the outbreak as an excuse to delay the vote.

“Incumbent pro-democracy legislators, who represent 60% of the public’s opinion, collectively oppose the postponement and emphasize the responsibility of the SAR government to make every effort to arrange adequate anti-epidemic measures to hold elections in September as scheduled,” the group said, referring to the territory’s official name, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. [Source]

The White House has also condemned the postponement, saying that it “undermines the democratic processes and freedoms that have underpinned Hong Kong’s prosperity.” Confirmation of the delay came a day after Donald Trump proposed similar deferment of the American presidential election in November on Twitter.

South China Morning Post’s Gary Cheung and Kimmy Chung discussed the prospect of a delay in the first part of a series on the election earlier this week. The series was derailed by the week’s events, but continued in an adapted form.

Either choice presents her with risks – postponing could launch a fresh constitutional crisis, while going ahead opens up the possibility of the opposition camp seizing a majority for the first time in the history of the global financial hub, an outcome expected to infuriate Beijing.

[…] But according to several government insiders, the ultimate call is not Lam’s to make. “The final say does not rest on us, but Beijing,” one source said.

[…] Beijing was closely monitoring the opposition’s “35-plus” strategy to win a majority in the 70-seat legislature for the first time since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, according to Ip [Kwok-him, a member of the Executive Council].

Some members of the bloc have previously said they would use the advantage to hold up legislation and veto the annual budget bill in an attempt to force the administration’s hand into restarting stalled political reforms. Beijing’s representatives in the city have warned such obstructionist tactics could run contrary to the national security law, introduced on June 30. Ip called the strategy tantamount to “challenging Beijing’s bottom line and declaring war against the central government”.

[…] Eugene Tan, an associate law professor at Singapore Management University, said: “The experience of Singapore, South Korea and Israel shows that it is possible to hold an election amid a global pandemic and that it is possible to ensure the risks are manageable,” Tan said. [Source]

Another blow to the “35-plus” plan this week was the disqualification of 12 pro-democracy candidates following inquiries into their political views and activities, forcing a scramble to enroll “not only […] ‘Plan B’ candidates, but ‘Plan C’, ‘Plan D’ or even ‘Plan X’.” From Yanni Chow and Jessie Pang at Reuters:

Those disqualified included pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, some members of the Civic Party, a moderate, old-guard opposition group, and others who won an unofficial “primary” vote held by the opposition camp this month.

[…] Hong Kong has disqualified candidates before but not on this scale. The disqualification of Civic Party candidates signals Beijing is becoming less tolerant of even moderate democrats, who have for decades been a vocal opposition in the legislature.

[…] The government said advocating self-determination, soliciting intervention by foreign governments, or “expressing an objection in principle” to the enactment of the new security law was behaviour that “could not genuinely” uphold the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

Candidates are required by law to pledge allegiance to Hong Kong and the Basic Law.

The government said there was “no question of any political censorship, restriction of the freedom of speech or deprivation of the right to stand for elections as alleged by some members of the community”. [Source]

Hong Kong Free Press’ Kelly Ho gathered defiant reactions to the bans:

“After this very naked attempt to rip out any dissenting voice from the Legislative Council, we have no illusion that the Central People’s Government and the HKSAR government would honour their promises under the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” [Civic Party chairman] Leong said.

The Civic Party’s barred candidates said the disqualification showed that authorities were “worried and scared” about witnessing another landslide defeat of the pro-establishment camp.

They referenced the pro-democracy camp’s overwhelming victory at last November’s District Council elections; democrats won close to 400 out of 452 seats across 18 districts.

Incumbent lawmaker Dennis Kwok, who came under fire in April during a row over the election of the House Committee chair, described the disqualifications as “relentless oppression.” He told reporters the electoral officers’ questions were a form of “political screening.”

“[T]hey also tried to drive fear and oppression into our hearts. This, we must not let them succeed. This is the message of the Civic Party to the Hong Kong people – do not give up,” Kwok said. [Source]

Lo’s thread describes the accusation that by traveling to New York and writing to U.S. legislators in support of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, Kwok was “soliciting interference by foreign governments or political authorities in relation to HKSAR’s affairs,” an act “intended to undermine the PRC’s sovereignty and HK’s autonomy, [which] therefore is fundamentally repugnant to the constitutional framework of one country two systems under which the PRC exercises sovereignty over the HKSAR.”

On Wednesday, four activists aged 16-21 were arrested in “the first targeted crackdown on opposition activists” since the NSL came into effect. The four are accused of secessionism, which now carries a potential life sentence. From Siobhán O’Grady and Shibani Mahtani at The Washington Post:

Police did not identify them, but Studentlocalism, a now-disbanded pro-independence group, said four of its former members were arrested. They include Tony Chung, a former convener of the group.

[…] Ho-fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University, said that Hong Kong residents have feared a crackdown on free speech since the law was implemented. The arrests Wednesday are likely to amplify those concerns.

“It seems [officials] are testing the waters and the world’s reaction to it by picking some lesser-known people,” he said, noting that some of Hong Kong’s most prominent activists were not among those detained on Wednesday. But it’s “very troubling,” he added, that the arrests, which appear to be based on comments made on social media, are targeting “people by their opinion or speech more than action.”

It’s possible, he said, that these cases will be managed more carefully and with less harsh punishment than other cases as authorities gauge reaction to the arrests. “If the backlash is not so big, they may go further,” he said. [Source]

Amnesty International’s Nicholas Bequelin similarly warned:

“This first coordinated police operation to enforce Hong Kong’s national security law is a significant, and alarming, moment for the right to freedom of expression in the city. According to police statements, all those detained have been targeted solely for peacefully expressing their views. It is also worrying that the authorities stressed their investigative power over ‘offences’ outside Hong Kong.

“That four young people could potentially face life imprisonment on the basis of some social media posts lays bare the draconian nature of the national security law. The idea that anybody can now be jailed for expressing their political opinion on Facebook or Instagram will send a chill throughout Hong Kong society.

“International human rights laws do not allow states to restrict all peaceful expression in the name of national security. No one should be arrested solely for expressing an opinion that is contrary to that of the government.

“The Hong Kong authorities must stop using national security as a pretext to excessively restrict freedom of expression and other human rights.” [Source]

South China Morning Post’s Gary Cheung and Clifford Lo reported criticism of the arrests from Hong Kong’s legal community:

Randy Shek, a member of the bar council of the Bar Association, said on Thursday the absence of a definition for a seditious act in the legislation imposed on Hong Kong a month ago left enforcement of the law ripe for misuse.

Pleading for the law to be used only as a last resort, Professor Fu Hualing, law dean of the University of Hong Kong, said: “Arresting teenagers for setting up a Facebook group does not help with protecting China’s national security. Nor can it generate confidence in the law.”

[…] HKU dean Fu Hualing said the law should be used with great caution, as he observed that under its provisions there was no need to prove that other people had actually been incited.

“The law is a sharp instrument that should be used to punish the bad rather than the misguided or the naughty,” he said.

Shek, whose areas of practice cover criminal law and human rights, said: “The approach being adopted by police is to forbid talking about independence at all. This is thought control by way of aggressive law enforcement.” [Source]

Tony Chung has now been released on bail:

Reuters’ Jessie Pang reported on the six further arrest warrants announced on Friday:

CCTV said the six were wanted on suspicion of secession or colluding with foreign forces, crimes that the new law punishes with up to life in prison.

It named the six as Nathan Law, Wayne Chan Ka-kui, Honcques Laus, Samuel Chu, Simon Cheng and Ray Wong Toi-yeung.

Hong Kong police declined to comment.

Wong said he believed the move showed that the Chinese government was afraid of the advocacy work of Hong Kong activists internationally, and wanted to pressure them.

“I think they want to cut off our connection with people in Hong Kong … it will make people fear that they may violate the national security law by contacting us,” Wong told Reuters by phone from Britain. [Source]

South China Morning Post’s Clifford Lo , Kanis Leung and Stuart Lau described the warrants as “the first time Hong Kong police invoked the extraterritorial provision” of the new National Security Law:

[The Hong Kong Democracy Council’s Samuel] Chu, who has been a US citizen for almost 25 years, said he had woken up on Friday to the reports that he was a “wanted fugitive”. He is believed to be the first non-Chinese citizen to be targeted under the new national security law.

“The Hong Kong police is issuing an arrest warrant against an American citizen for advocating and lobbying my own government,” Chu, whose Washington-based organisation has lobbied US lawmakers to support numerous Hong Kong-related bills, said in a statement.

“Let me be very clear – I might be the first non-Chinese citizen to be targeted, but I will not be the last,” Chu continued. “If I am targeted, any American and any citizen of any nation who speaks out for Hong Kong can, and will be, too.”

[…] Since the new law was instituted, several Western countries have cut off extradition treaties with Hong Kong. Even so, [a police] source said, “the move can help send a high-profile message to them or others that their acts could constitute an offence against the law”. [Source]

The week’s salvo against the opposition movement also included the firing of Benny Tai over criminal convictions for his role in the 2014 Occupy protests. From Chan Ho-him at South China Morning Post:

Tai, an associate professor of law and outspoken opposition activist, learned his fate on Tuesday night after the HKU council reversed a recommendation by the university’s senate earlier this month that there were not enough grounds to dismiss him although his actions amounted to misconduct.

[…] Hours after the decision, Beijing’s liaison office in the city said in a statement it supported the dismissal as an act that punished “evil” and upheld justice.

[…] The office added Tai had “organised, planned, carried out, incited and instigated events including Occupy Central and the recent opposition camp’s primary elections earlier this month, and that his actions “increased conflict in society and poisoned Hong Kong’s political atmosphere”.

[…] A day before, Baptist University lecturer and lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun, who was also convicted for taking part in the Occupy protests and who stood trial along with Tai, was told his contract would not be renewed after expiry by the end of August. [Source]

Tai responded with a statement on Facebook:

The decision to terminate my appointment was made not by the University of Hong Kong but by an authority beyond the University through its agents.

It marks the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong. Academic staff in education institutions in Hong Kong are no longer free to make controversial statements to the general public about politically or socially controversial matters. Academic institutions in Hong Kong cannot protect their members from internal and outside interference.
If there is still any doubt of the advancement of “One Country, One System” in the territory, my case should be able to remove it.
I am very grateful to the University of Hong Kong for nurturing me as a law student, a law teacher, a legal researcher and a guardian of the rule of law. I am heart-broken to witness the demise of my beloved university.

Yet, I will continue my research and teaching on the rule of law in another capacity. My fight for Hong Kong’s rule of law also will not stop.

I have the confidence to see the rebirth of a free HKU in the future. [Source]

The New York Times’ Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May reported other reactions:

“Arthur Li [the chair of the school council and an advisor to Carrie Lam] has completed his political mission, and Benny Tai has become a martyr to civil disobedience,” said Joseph Chan, a political science professor at the university. “The University of Hong Kong has sacrificed its reputation and it will not be able to hold its head high in the international academic community. This day will become a major stain in the history of the University of Hong Kong that cannot be washed away.”

Lei Tsz Shing, an undergraduate representative of the university’s council, said in an opinion article on Tuesday that Mr. Tai’s termination would contradict messages that academic freedom would be maintained under the national security law.

“If the university at this moment ignores the senate’s recommendations and fires Benny Tai, it would be equivalent to declaring that academic freedom is being repressed,” he wrote on Tuesday in The Stand News, an online outlet.

The Hong Kong University Students’ Union had argued that Mr. Tai should not be dismissed, calling him a model scholar who was willing to put his knowledge into action.

“He has impressed on generations of students the responsibility of a public intellectual, with his genuine care of society and unwavering pursuit of universal suffrage,” the group wrote in a statement on Facebook. [Source]

Tai had been singled out earlier in July by mainland authorities for his role in organizing unofficial primary elections ahead of the now-delayed LegCo vote. The primary had been intended to help overcome structural obstacles to an opposition majority by maximizing the efficiency of the pro-democracy vote. As Suzanne Pepper explained at Hong Kong Free Press, “too many enthusiastic candidates chasing too few council seats has become a perennial problem for Hong Kong’s democracy movement,” and “factional infighting […] since the early 2000’s […] has also been responsible for many election losses to the always disciplined and well-coordinated alliance of pro-Beijing loyalists and pro-establishment conservatives.” South China Morning Post’s Kimmy Chung reported in mid-July on the central government’s response:

In a scathing statement on Tuesday [July 14], the cabinet-level Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) lashed out at those behind last weekend’s unofficial polls, when 610,000 Hongkongers voted to determine who should get the opposition ticket for the Legislative Council elections in September.

[…] Turning its ire on Tai, a legal academic and co-leader of the Occupy movement in 2014, the office suggested the primary he helped organise flowed from the anti-government protests sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill last June, describing him as “one of the culprits” behind the social unrest.

“Benny Tai was a key organiser of the ‘unlawful’ Occupy Central movement and an advocate of ‘Hong Kong independence’ and the scorched-earth mentality,” the statement read, accusing him of serving as “a political agent of foreign forces”.

[…] Tai rejected the allegations as “nonsense, groundless and absurd”.

“I hope that the central government can see that 610,000 Hong Kong people have only used a peaceful and rational way to express their views through voting,” he said. “If even they could be condemned as breaching the law, it will make governance even more difficult in the future and will provoke even more radical protests.” [Source]

Activist and researcher Lokman Tsui reacted to Tai’s firing this week:

At Quartz, Mary Hui reported on the “full court press” underway across the education, civil service, business, and even medical spheres:

So far, Hong Kong’s schools appear to have borne the brunt of this incipient wave of political suppression. Teachers have been rebuked and fired for supporting the protest movement, and many have been targeted for making comments in the classroom or using language in test questions that are deemed to be anti-government. Almost 200 teachers have been investigated for alleged professional misconduct, with a third receiving punishment or warnings, according to the education minister.

[…] Teachers who have not yet been directly targeted say they are walking on eggshells. A liberal studies teacher at a secondary school, who asked to be identified as Louise, said she is under intense pressure when planning her classes and setting homework. As a wide-ranging school course designed to teach critical thinking, officials have zeroed in on liberal studies as the reason for what they say is the radicalization of students. And with shifting red lines and no clear rules from the government, Louise said she is unsure which topics can be safely discussed and which are regarded as political third rails. She fears that issues like corruption, rule of law, and judicial independence could put her on shaky ground. Even environmental issues could be risky, she said, because it touches on issues of governance.

“But if we don’t talk about this, there’s nothing else to talk about,” said Louise, and compared the mood in schools to the Cultural Revolution. “The control of thoughts is very strict.” [Source]

In a report on investigations into teachers accused of raising political topics in class, The New York Times’ Amy Qin and Tiffany May cited an email to staff by a dean at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which argued that “there may well be non-obvious ‘red lines’ in Hong Kong’s higher education sector that cannot be crossed without severe legal consequences. Let’s not draw those lines ourselves.” Commenting on the chilling climate on July 17, NYU legal scholar Jerome Cohen wrote that “I agree that it’s best for activist teachers to carry on until some specific warning is issued, [but] I was told that informal warnings and advice had already been personally given by university officials, even before adoption of the NSL!! In these circumstances, even the bravest are now becoming at least somewhat more discreet.” AFP’s Jerome Taylor and Su Xinqi reported on similar warnings on July 14:

“Remain neutral in your teaching and be mindful of the language you use,” read one email to staff of HKU SPACE, a college attached to the prestigious University of Hong Kong (HKU).

“Any behaviour in eliciting further discussion on sensitive issues MUST be avoided,” the email from the program director of the humanities and law faculty said.

[…] “This may be partly out of genuine concern for staff, but it strangles free speech without the government having to lift a finger,” said a lecturer who asked not to be identified.

[…] A history teacher at an international school said he already avoided asking students to write essays about controversial topics, preferring conversations instead.

“The vagaries of the national security law are designed to chill and quell discussion because one cannot know when they have stepped over the line,” he told AFP. [Source]

The sense of uncertainty is a pervasive theme. At The Financial Times, Isabel Hilton described the law’s rollout as “a masterclass in creating fear,” adding that “it is unclear how the law will be applied, but Beijing generally avoids red lines: uncertainty and fear do most of the work.” Describing the new reality as “Kafkaesque, even Pythonesque” at The Guardian, Louisa Lim wrote that “the lack of clarity surrounding the offences, combined with such arbitrary application, has left the population dazed.”

Beyond academia, books by activist Joshua Wong and pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan have been removed from public library shelves pending a review into their legal status. The chill has also seeped into Hong Kong’s traditionally vibrant publishing industry. One publisher told The Financial Times that “the situation now is that you keep on reflecting whether what you have done previously is right or wrong or whether you have violated the law. The fear is always with you.” Another told Reuters about his discomfort at softening a forthcoming essay collection on last year’s protests to comply with the new law, saying “this is really painful. This is history. This is the truth.”

The law is also fueling mounting doubt over Hong Kong’s traditional status as a bastion of press freedom, both for local media and the international organizations which have set up outposts there. This erosion had already been underway for some time, with press freedom groups decrying violence targeted at journalists by HK police, and recent expulsions of foreign reporters from mainland China bringing unprecedented additional bans on their relocation to Hong Kong. A memo to New York Times staff mid-month warned that “China’s sweeping new national security law in Hong Kong has created a lot of uncertainty about what the new rules will mean to our operation and our journalism,” and that “we feel it is prudent to make contingency plans and begin to diversify our editing staff around the region.” The Times’ report on the memo also noted that Chris Buckley, who had already been forced to leave China, had been denied a work permit renewal in Hong Kong. Some other news organizations have made or considered similar plans. CNN’s James Griffiths reported on the broader pressure on journalism in Hong Kong:

In its annual report on press freedom in the city, published last week, the Hong Kong Journalists Association warned that “the already-limited room for free speech, freedom of publication and freedom of the press will be severely shrunk” under the law.

[…] The report found that even before the law was enacted, Hong Kong press freedom had “dropped to a record low,” in the wake of sustained and often violent anti-government protests last year and multiple incidents involving reporters and the police.

[…] Concerns about the security law go beyond reporting on protests or proponents Hong Kong independence. In particular, new offenses relating to “state secrets” raised alarm because of the broad way they have been applied in China in the past to stifle reporting on corruption and government misbehavior.

“The problem is that what constitutes ‘state secret’ or intelligence is not defined, but are to be ultimately decided by (Hong Kong’s) Chief Executive,” said an investigative reporter with a prominent Hong Kong outlet. “The damage to the press is greater when the so called ‘red line’ or the operating space are not explicit, so news editors and reporters will self censor, for fear of treading onto what would become illegal, when the government decides so.” [Source]

Hong Kong Free Press founder Tom Grundy discussed the climate of uncertainty and the pressure to self-censor that it exerts in an op-ed at The Guardian:

Beijing’s far-reaching security law was foisted on Hong Kong with breathtaking speed, sweeping aside guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of the press overnight. Analogies of slow-boiling frogs and civil liberties suffering a “death by a thousand cuts” now feel redundant as independent media outlets scramble to future-proof themselves against vaguely worded legislation that carries a punishment of life imprisonment for crimes such as “subversion” and “collusion.”

[…] Will newspapers be allowed to report on forbidden slogans? Can we interview independence activists? Are opinion pieces questioning one-party rule illegal? The government will not give us straight answers to questions about the security law – and that is by design. Fuzziness is a feature, not a bug – the authorities want journalists to overcompensate, tip-toe around ill-defined red lines, and ultimately self-censor. Beijing’s playbook also suggests small outlets like ours will be subjected to legal and bureaucratic terrorism – dragging us through the courts and red tape to drain our meagre resources and bandwidth. [Source]

The June 2 edition of the Chinese Storytellers newsletter offered more perspectives on navigating these uncertainties.


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