HK Government Introduces Even More Measures to Ensure Preferred Election Outcomes

The government has announced an umbrella bill to implement sweeping changes to the city’s electoral system, two weeks after the changes were approved by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) in Beijing. The measures will more than halve the number of democratically elected seats in the city’s legislature, while expanding the body and altering its selection mechanism to grant more influence to pro-Beijing figures. The NPCSC’s plan all but guarantees that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition will never gain more than a handful of seats, still less the majority towards which they had been working. Nevertheless, the city’s government has now gone even further in its bid to control future election outcomes, announcing on Tuesday that it would make it illegal for anyone to encourage voters to cast blank ballots or boycott future elections.

South China Morning Post’s Lilian Cheng, Chris Lau, and Jeffie Lam reported on details of the new legislation, including the boycott advocacy ban:

People who publicly encourage voters to boycott elections or spoil their ballots as a form of protest against Beijing’s drastic overhaul of the city’s electoral system will be committing a crime carrying a jail sentence of up to three years under new legislation unveiled by the Hong Kong government on Tuesday.

[…] Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah said anyone publicly inciting others to boycott voting or cast invalid ballots could be prosecuted. That would include public communication through speeches, broadcasts, screening and playing of recordings, or publishing of materials such as emails or leaflets.

[…] Political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said this was unheard of in other countries and suggested that it was only instituted to counter embarrassment over the possibility of low turnout rates.

“In an election, you urge others to support a candidate or you ask others not to vote for him or her. One way or the other, it will have a bearing on the election results,” he said. [Source]

Under the new system, even before they are allowed to run for office, would-be candidates will be subject to a triple vetting procedure, including an initial screening by the National Security Police and a dedicated “Candidate Eligibility Review Committee.” Decisions made by the vetting bodies are explicitly immune from judicial review, rendering them effectively above the law. On Tuesday, the government released additional details about how the “Candidate Eligibility Review Committee” would operate, with its byzantine structure underscoring the opacity and fraughtness of the system for would-be opposition candidates.

When pressed by the media, officials were unable to explain exactly how blank votes would sabotage the election.

As more details of the electoral overhaul package become clear, analysts have begun to pick apart the winners and losers under the new system. Last month, the NPCSC announced that hundreds of democratically elected and overwhelmingly pro-democracy district councillors would be ousted from the committee responsible for selecting the Chief Executive. This week, Selina Cheng reported for Hong Kong Free Press that the pro-Beijing losers of the District Council election in 2019 have been appointed to replace them on the Election Committee:

Scores of losing candidates in Hong Kong’s 2019 district council elections are set to replace the winners of those polls on a powerful committee which will choose the city’s future leader and some of its legislators.

[…] About 200 losing candidates in 2019 were appointed by the Home Affairs Bureau to various local committees.

The 200 mainly pro-government figures now hold seats on Area Committees, District Fire Safety Committees and District Fight Crime Committees, RTHK reported. They were among 600 who suffered a landslide defeat in 2019 in which pro-democracy candidates gained control of 17 out of 18 district councils amid record voter turnout, in the wake of the pro-democracy protests.

[…] Critics say the government lavished resources and funding on area committees that were denied to district councils made up largely of pro-democracy district councillors, allegedly as a way to circumvent the latter and create “shadow district councils.” [Source]

Other winners of the electoral overhaul include influential groups with close ties to the central government. In an investigation earlier this month, South China Morning Post’s Natalie Wong, Victor Ting, and Nadia Lam reported that several newly-empowered bodies have direct ties to Beijing:

Many of the mainland organisations newly entrusted by Beijing to field Hong Kong representatives to the powerful body which now oversees the city’s key elections are closely tied to the central government, if not directly controlled by it, the Post has learned.

For example, the China Law , a mainland group given the unprecedented power to name nine members to the 30-strong legal subsector of the Election Committee, is under the direct supervision of the and chaired by , the vice-chairman of the National People’s (NPC) Standing Committee, according to its website.

[…] In some of the committee’s professional subsectors – including those for the legal, technology and accountancy industries, previously seen as opposition strongholds – Hong Kong representatives affiliated with mainland organisations will now be empowered to choose up to half of the seats.

[…] Beijing’s control of another newly empowered nominating group in the subsector – the Hong Kong Publishing Federation – is in less dispute. Since its foundation, the federation has been chaired by three successive bosses of Sino United Publishing (Holdings) Limited, a conglomerate controlled via a proxy company by its largest shareholder, the central government’s liaison office in the city. The federation had not responded to a Post inquiry as of press . [Source]

Beyond the pro-democracy camp, another notable loser is Hong Kong’s tycoon class. In an op-ed for Nikkei Asia titled “Hong Kong’s elites should think about an exit strategy,” political science professor Minxin Pei argued that the electoral overhaul represented a significant shift of Hong Kong’s power center away from the city’s local moneyed elite and closer to figures directly under Beijing’s control:

On the surface, China’s suppression of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement may please its loyalists, such as business tycoons and senior government officials. After all, the restoration of stability should help sustain the city’s status as a dynamic global commercial hub and allow its leaders to govern without Beijing breathing down their neck.

But Hong Kong political and business elites, many of whom have supported, cheered or abetted China’s crackdown, should think again. If they believe that China’s rulers will allow things to return to business as usual, they will not only be proven wrong, but will also find themselves marginalized when Beijing’s blueprint for establishing total control over Hong Kong becomes reality.

[…] Most of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing elites may feel puzzled, even upset, by their marginalization. After all, they have been faithfully toeing the CCP’s line and, in the case of crushing the pro-democracy movement, doing most of its dirty work. But they mostly have themselves to blame.

If they paid any attention to the party’s record, they would find that the party does not trust anybody who is not groomed, tested and promoted within its own system. Even China’s richest and most successful private entrepreneur, Jack Ma, is not trusted by the party. [Source]

That the Hong Kong government decided to ban calls for a boycott or blank voting may reflect continued insecurity about the election system, even with an essentially foolproof plan to keep the opposition out of office. Even with their preferred candidates locked out of the city’s political system, however, Hong Kong residents have continued to find ways to defy the government.

Last week, customs officials staged a series of coordinated raids on AbouThai, a Hong Kong retail chain owned by businessman Mike Lam, one of the 47 pro-democracy activists charged with subversion under the National Security Law for running in a political primary last year. Officers seized goods including 8,000 bottles of shower gel, bleach, and detergent, citing “safety regulations” after finding that 12 products failed to contain warning labels in Chinese. Critics decried the raid as disproportionate and politically motivated. Pro-democracy residents turned out in force, in scenes reminiscent of the long election lines in 2019 and 2020. Across the city, throngs queued up outside AbouThai outlets, cleaning out store shelves, a quiet show of solidarity and defiance in a city where avenues for such expression are quickly disappearing.

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