China puts screws on Hong Kong with election of ‘patriots’ only

Miyuki Yoshioka / The Yomiuri Shimbun
A poster by a subway station in downtown Hong Kong is seen in this photo taken Sunday.

HONG KONG — A record-low turnout of 30.2% for Sunday’s Legislative Council election demonstrated the feelings of many Hong Kong residents, who chose not to participate in a “Chinese-style poll” with pro-democracy candidates effectively excluded.

Prospective candidates were screened to check whether they are “patriots.”

Of the supporters of the pro-democracy camp who responded to a Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute survey, of which results were released Friday, 84% said there was no candidate to support.

This is in stark contrast to the district council election held in 2019 when anti-government protests continued and turnout hit 71%.

Despite this, the Chinese administration led by President Xi Jinping justified the latest election by emphasizing the “diversity” among the candidates, as some people not known to be pro-Beijing also ran.

China continues to further reinforce its control over Hong Kong with a council dominated by pro-Beijing legislators.

Silent banner of revolt

“I don’t want to approve a fake election,” a 25-year-old who supports the pro-democracy camp told The Yomiuri Shimbun in explaining why he didn’t vote. “This is an election of pro-Beijing groups, by pro-Beijing groups, for pro-Beijing groups.”

The governments of both China and Hong Kong have asserted that candidates other than pro-Beijing ones have also run in the election. As both had strenuously tried to boost voter turnout, the governments are thought to be shocked by the low turnout, which can also be taken as a silent banner of revolt from the people.

On Dec. 6, Xia Baolong, head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of China’s State Council, who is close to Xi, claimed in an online speech delivered to Hong Kong, “To ‘govern by patriots’ is to make [the election] ‘full of colors,’ meaning it contains diversity.”

With the speech, he sought to get more people to vote.

Aware of the headwinds, the Hong Kong government three times this month bought full-page advertising space in over 10 daily newspapers to encourage people to cast their vote.

In what was deemed an unusual development, high-ranking government officials also went out on the streets themselves, handing out leaflets to call on people to vote.

On election day, the government, in another bid to help lift the turnout, resorted to the clumsy measure of making public transportation services free for the day.

All these moves by the Hong Kong government could not influence the popular will.

“It is ridiculous to call it a democratic election, an election which is held while many of those in the pro-democracy camp have been arrested,” said a 30-year-old woman.

High hurdles

The Legislative Council election was originally slated for September 2020. The Hong Kong government, however, was put on the alert after over 80% of the district council seats were won by pro-democracy candidates in the district council election in 2019. So the Legislative Council election was postponed on the pretext of being a measure against spreading the novel coronavirus.

Moreover, under the leadership of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, the electoral system itself was changed unilaterally.

The biggest change was the establishment of the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee, which is chaired by the chief secretary, the No. 2 official of the Hong Kong government. Through the new mechanism, those who are not considered “patriotic” are unable to stand as candidates for an election.

To run in an election, it has also become necessary for each prospective candidate to win endorsements from 10 members of the Election Committee. Among the 1,488 people elected in the September election for seats to the committee, only one person was not a pro-Beijing candidate.

No leading pro-democracy party, including the Democratic Party and the Civic Party, could field candidates, since these two hurdles were too high to overcome.

Near a polling station that top Hong Kong official Chief Executive Carrie Lam visited on Sunday morning, officials related to the pro-democracy League of Social Democrats who had given up fielding candidates in the latest election raised their voices in protest: “Don’t deprive us of our right to vote for who we want!”

From now on, the major pro-democracy parties will be unable to become involved in any policy-making process of the government. While they can be expected to continue their activities on the streets, they will no longer be able to act as a mediator between voters and the Legislative Council.

Residents will also be entangled in the division between the pro-democracy camp and the pro-government and pro-Beijing camp, which may further widen in the days ahead.