Three People Arrested for Sharing Online Appeal to Cast Blank Ballots in Hong Kong Elections

On Tuesday, Hong Kong authorities arrested three people for sharing an online post calling on voters to cast blank ballots in the upcoming Legislative Council (LegCo) general elections in December. The arrests came one day after the Secretary for Security Chris Tang Ping-keung warned that casting blank votes or boycotting the election could violate the National Security Law. Election reforms rammed through LegCo in May all but guarantee a pro-establishment election victory. These new arrests demonstrate the government’s resolve to force voters to legitimize the antidemocratic changes brought upon Hong Kong by Beijing’s imposition of the National Security Law.

Christy Leung from the South China Morning Post provided details of the arrest and the laws allegedly broken:

The two men and one woman, aged 29 to 65, were arrested by Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) officers on suspicion of breaching the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance by “inciting another person not to vote, or to cast invalid vote, by activity in public during [an] election period”.

“The three arrestees have allegedly breached Section 27A of the [ordinance] during the election period of the 2021 Legislative Council General Election … by reposting an online post which appealed to members of the public to cast blank votes at the election,” a statement from the graft-buster read, adding that officers had seized several mobile phones and did not rule out further arrests.

The suspects were released on bail pending further investigation.

[…] Publicly inciting another person not to vote or to cast an invalid ballot during an election period is punishable by up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of HK$200,000 (US$25,700). [Source]

The three people arrested were apparently ordinary citizens, not prominent activists. The press release by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, whose officers arrested them, did not provide any further details about the post they allegedly shared online, and did not specify whether the original creator of the post was among the three individuals arrested. 

The issue of blank ballots arose in April when legislators introduced a bill making it illegal to incite others to not vote or to cast blank ballots. The arrests this week mark the first instance of the government converting authorities’ admonitions into action against potential violators. Two weeks ago, Hong Kong activist Ted Hui, currently self-exiled in Australia, urged his fellow citizens online to cast blank ballots in the upcoming elections in order to protest the city’s electoral changes. Rhoda Kwan from the Hong Kong Free Press reported on Hui’s message to Hongkongers

“In the Legislative Council election, how can we fight against tyranny? With the enactment of the national security law and the regime’s frenzied suppression of civil society, Hong Kong people are not allowed to demonstrate and assemble; they are not allowed to form associations and operate organisations,” Hui – who now lives in Australia – wrote.

[…] “Over the past two years, the most frequent question I have received from Hongkongers is: What else can we do? My answer is still this: do whatever you can to resist.”

Hui’s plan of resistance aims to achieve the highest number of blank votes in the history of Hong Kong elections, and for blank votes to exceed the number of valid votes.

“Faced with the reality that, under the tyranny of the regime, Hong Kong people have very limited options for political mobilisation with substantial influence… The implementation of strategic voting is not aimed at ‘who is elected’ or ‘how many seats.’ Instead, we can use official blank votes to express our resistance to tyranny and our thirst for freedom. This is the greatest political mobilization we can actually achieve at the moment,” he wrote.

He dubbed his plan ‘Be Water,” in reference to the leaderless, spontaneous strategy protesters deployed during the 2019 pro-democracy protests to evade police. [Source]

Hong Kong authorities strongly condemned Hui’s actions. Chief Executive Carrie Lam stated that law enforcement would take “very robust action” against those who incite others to not vote, and she called on the public to “actively participate” in the elections. Security Secretary Chris Tang wrote that Hui was “despicably inciting people to break the law.” Kelly Ho from the Hong Kong Free Press described Secretary Tang’s threats towards Hui:

“These illegal behaviours, disrupting the election, may also violate relevant provisions in the ‘Hong Kong National Security Law’,” Tang wrote.

[…] It was “cowardly behaviour” for Hui to flee, Tang said, while warning the public not to take part in his “unlawful appeal,” or re-share any illicit content.

“[Hui] is despicably inciting citizens to break the law. As the saying goes, ‘asking people to go forward while staying back yourself’ – this behaviour is deplorable,” said the former police commissioner who was promoted in June to lead the Security Bureau. [Source]

In April, Hong Kong’s LegCo passed a sweeping reform of the city’s election process that empowered the pro-Beijing establishment at the expense of the opposition camp. The reforms more than halved the number of democratically elected seats to the legislature and instated a triple vetting procedure overseen by national security police, who are immune from judicial review, for prospective candidates. President Xi and Chief Executive Lam have asserted that Hong Kong must be governed only by “patriots.” In September’s “patriots only” election, opposition candidates won only two of 1,500 seats in the Election Committee after most were blocked from running, while at least 121 pro-establishment candidates did not even bother to present their platforms when filing their official nominations. 

Opposition candidates have been targeted and hunted down by Hong Kong authorities. In January, every single pro-democracy candidate for the delayed LegCo elections was arrested under the National Security Law for participating in an informal primary election in July 2020. By October, mandatory patriotic loyalty oaths forced 72 percent of District Councilors out of office; among those who left, 31 were councilors from pro-democracy groups who had been disqualified, while none were from pro-government groups. With the new vetting process disqualifying anyone deemed hostile to the National Security Law, including those who criticize the anti-democratic nature of the law, pro-democracy groups have been effectively barred from participating in the December LegoCo elections; they announced that none of their members would run anyway. But over the past few months, prominent pro-Beijing figures have stated that if opposition candidates refuse to run, “it’s equivalent to challenging and destroying the new election system, and will possibly violate the Hong Kong national security law.” For opposition candidates and parties, Hong Kong elections have turned into a dangerous Catch-22.

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