A forthcoming proposal by the Hong Kong government to expand voting for the city’s permanent residents living in mainland China has ignited controversy in the city. The plan, which was originally expected to be unveiled in Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s annual policy address on Wednesday, would allow Hongkongers living in mainland China to cast ballots in the city’s future District Council and Legislative Council elections. Hong Kong currently does not allow absentee voting. For the South China Morning Post, Gary Cheung reported on the government’s voting expansion plan:
A source familiar with the government’s position told the Post the administration hoped the amendment bill could be passed by the Legislative Council by early next year, with the new rules in place in time for the postponed Legco elections, currently scheduled for September 5, 2021.
[…] The relaxation of voting rules would be more aggressive than what the chief executive and the pro-establishment camp have been advocating in recent months – namely, setting up polling stations only in mainland cities within the Greater Bay Area in Guangdong Province. [Source]
As Rachel Wong reported for Hong Kong Free Press, the proposal has been strongly criticized by opposition figures in Hong Kong, who see the measure as a way for the government to increase votes for the pro-Beijing camp:
At a press conference on Thursday, pro-democracy legislators attacked the reported plan, saying it was designed to help government supporters. They vowed to vote against the amendment in the legislature and file a legal challenge if the bill passes.
Dennis Kwok, who represents the legal sector, said campaign material containing certain political messages could not be circulated in mainland China. “There is no Basic Law in China to protect our rights. Our ideas will not be able to get through to at least 15 per cent of all voters.”
Democratic Party leader Wu Chi-wai said some pro-democracy candidates without a home return permit allowing them to cross the border would be banned from campaigning in China. Wu said the planned change was tailor-made to help pro-establishment lawmakers. [Source]
For The Standard, Erin Chan reported that pro-democracy figures also cited the unfairness of extending voting privileges to Hong Kong residents in mainland China, without extending similar privileges to eligible voters residing overseas:
Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu pointed out such a system would not be fair to Hongkongers overseas. “There are over 200,000 Hong Kong citizens right now living in Canada,” he noted. “So what about them?
“If so, such voting rights should also be expanded to Canada.” [Source]
On Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, citing unspecified sources, said in an interview that society “demands to let Hongkongers living in the mainland [to] vote.” But broadcaster iCable reported that there would be no public consultation on the plan to expand voting to mainland China, echoing the government’s aggressive campaign to pass the ill-fated extradition bill of 2019:
No public consultation as govt plans to push for the controversial external voting, @icablenews reports.
Has govt not learned the lesson from extradition bill? https://t.co/OrP7QteA9d
— Alvin Lum (@alvinllum) October 13, 2020
It's almost like the Hong Kong government has combined the two lessons of 2014 (people want to vote) & 2019 (people want a firewall between the legal systems of HK & China) to come up with this push to allow HKers living in mainland China to vote in HK elections. https://t.co/EDAQI3kYpY
— Mary Hui (@maryhui) October 13, 2020
On Monday, Hong Kong’s independent election commission voiced concerns about the plan. According to RTHK, election officials expressed concern about the practical challenges of ensuring the credibility of the election for votes collected outside of Hong Kong’s borders:
“If voting outside Hong Kong is to be implemented, a suitable monitoring mechanism should be in place to ensure that the credibility of the election would not be compromised. As to the legal aspect, the government must carefully consider the applicability and enforcement of the subsisting electoral law in places outside Hong Kong so that the issue of law enforcement abroad can be addressed,” it said.
The EAC said being as it has “no experience in conducting the poll abroad”, it would have to rely on government departments familiar with the situation and operations elsewhere for co-ordination and implementation.
It added that if postal votes come in from outside Hong Kong, the body would not be able to verify the identity of the voters. [Source]
On Monday afternoon, the announcement of the plan took an unexpected turn, as it was revealed at the last minute that the Chief Executive’s Policy Address would be delayed by a month:
Carrie Lam will delay her annual policy address from Wednesday to next month, citing an upcoming trip to Beijing that may unveil new economic aids. Xi Jinping's Shenzhen trip is the obvious conflict. The late change and mushy explanation all telling of the HK government's status
— Austin Ramzy (@austinramzy) October 12, 2020
This is the first time since the handover that Hong Kong’s policy address has been delayed for so long. Last year, Lam delivered her address via video conference, after protests in the legislature during her speech forced the session to be adjourned. Reuters reported that Lam defended the delay in a press conference on Monday:
“It is not a matter of waiting for directions,” Lam told a news conference on Monday when asked about the postponement of her address.
“It is a matter of responding to a positive indication from the central government that they want to take into account the chief executive’s recommendations, that they really want to facilitate those policy measures so that Hong Kong people have more confidence that the economy will bounce back.” [Source]
The plan to expand voting to residents on the mainland is the latest in a line of controversial government decisions surrounding the city’s elections. In late August, Chief Executive Carrie Lam took the unprecedented decision to delay the city’s Legislative Council elections by a full year, citing risks from COVID-19. She also cited the inability of Hong Kong residents living in mainland China to return to the city to vote, due to border restrictions, as a reason for the delay.
That decision prompted the National People’s Congress Standing Committee to issue a directive to extend the current term of the Legislative Council by a year. Article 69 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law specifies that terms of office are four years.
Shortly before the decision to delay elections altogether, the government also announced the disqualification of a dozen opposition candidates vying for seats in the 2020 election. The move to postpone elections, which came the following day, provoked confusion, as a number of sitting lawmakers had been disqualified as candidates the previous day. It was subsequently clarified that the incumbent lawmakers would be permitted to complete their extended terms in the legislature, despite their disqualification.