A majority of Hong Kongers has shunned the city’s first elections after Beijing arrested opposition politicians and imposed a “patriots”-only rule on the semi-autonomous territory’s electoral system.
Only 30.2 percent of Hong Kong’s 4.4 million voters cast a ballot on Sunday, a record low turnout for any citywide elections. This is despite the government’s efforts to encourage voting, including by offering free subway rides, sending text message reminders, and—for the first time—allowing Hong Kongers who live in mainland China to cast their votes in the southern city of Shenzhen. In comparison, 58.3 percent of eligible voters participated in the same legislative elections in 2016.
Pro-establishment candidates ended up winning 89 of the 90 of the seats in the Legislative Council, with the remaining one going to a self-identified centrist.
The elections used to be seen as a barometer of support for Beijing’s policy in Hong Kong after the former British colony was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997. For decades, the city’s pro-democracy opposition had enjoyed a slight but consistent majority over pro-Beijing lawmakers.
But the bulk of opposition leaders and lawmakers, including many who would have run, have been arrested under a national security crackdown following the 2019 anti-government demonstrations. And, in March, Beijing rewrote Hong Kong’s electoral system to give power to a vetting committee to screen out candidates deemed unpatriotic.
This means Beijing’s loyalists got to dominate the race, and many people simply did not bother to vote.
“There is no one I want to vote for,” said a 25-year-old social work student, who declined to be named for fear of government retaliation. He said he took advantage of the free public transport on Sunday to meet a friend.
The empty polling stations on Sunday came in sharp contrast with the long lines formed during the 2019 district elections, which saw a record high turnout of 71 percent in the midst of the protest movement. A majority voted for candidates who openly supported the protests, many of whom have since been imprisoned or disqualified from their posts.
A 27-year-old IT worker, who voted in 2019, said she did not participate in the Sunday elections because there was no candidate who could reflect her political stance. “I didn’t want to join this planned game,” she said. “The result had already been planned and was predictable.”
She similarly declined to be named for fear of punishment. Local authorities previously arrested at least 10 people for calling for a boycott of the elections and issued arrest warrants for overseas activists.
Pro-democracy advocates say the low turnout showed most Hong Kongers did not see the latest elections as a meaningful one.
“Hong Kongers clearly did not buy the sham ‘patriots-only’ election on Sunday,” Campaign for Hong Kong, a Washington-based advocacy group, said in a statement. It called the elections “nothing more than a performative selection ritual fully controlled by Beijing.”
Despite the landslide victory by pro-Beijing candidates, authorities are struggling to argue that the winners actually enjoy a public mandate.
Hong Kong’s top official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, said on Monday that the 1.4 million votes cast showed the election was an important one. She said the pro-establishment legislature would work better with the administration in solving economic and social problems.
On Monday, the Chinese State Council, China’s cabinet, called the Sunday elections a fair, secure, and corruption-free exercise of democracy in a new white paper on Hong Kong’s “democratic progress.”
“Under British colonial rule, there was no democracy in Hong Kong,” the document proclaimed. “Any rational observer can clearly see that since Hong Kong’s return to China, its people have gained much greater access to political participation and enjoy more democratic rights than ever before. Democracy in Hong Kong is flourishing.”
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