HONG KONG – Pro-Beijing candidates swept Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) elections amid a historically low turnout as many democratic voters boycotted the polls after Chinese authorities changed electoral rules to ensure that only “loyalists” could run.
The elections, which were postponed from September 2020 to last Sunday for anti-epidemic reasons, saw a turnout of 30.2% of 4.47 million registered voters for the geographical constituency, compared with 58.3% in 2016 and 53% in 2012.
Since the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in 1997, LegCo’s turnout was consistently above 43.6%. When the city was still a British colony, the turnout was 39.2% in 1991 and 35.8% in 1995.
On Monday, Beijing issued a 57-page white paper claiming victory for Hong Kong’s “high-quality democracy” and lauding the 1.35 million people who voted in a show of support for what it termed an “improved electoral system.”
At the same time, Chief Executive Carrie Lam declined to comment on why millions of people failed to vote while saying the elections were fair and transparent. She said people should not necessarily be proud of a high turnout, such as in 2019, as it might only reflect a highly polarized society and a “worsening quality of politics.”
Lam said she did not know why millions of people decided not to vote and that she didn’t expect everyone to understand and agree with the revamped electoral system straight away. On Monday afternoon, Lam left for Beijing to report to state leaders including President Xi Jinping on Wednesday on her past year’s work.
Under an electoral overhaul announced by China in March, the proportion of directly elected seats was reduced from around half to less than a quarter, or 20 seats.
Forty seats were selected by a committee packed with Beijing loyalists, while the remaining 30 were filled by professional and business sectors such as finance and engineering, known locally as “functional constituencies.”
Turnout for these professional groups also fell to 32.2% from 74% in 2016. Some sectors whose voters have traditionally leaned pro-democracy, including education, social welfare, and law, had the lowest rates. In 2019, the last major citywide election for district councils seats, the turnout was 71% with around 90% of the 452 seats won by democrats.
On Sunday, the long queues of voters that were seen outside polling stations in the 2019 District Council elections were not apparent. Instead, country parks, shopping malls and theme parks were crowded by people as the government surprisingly encouraged bus and MTR companies to provide free services on Sunday.
The pro-democracy camp had once called for a boycott against the LegCo elections but the government said it was illegal to encourage others to cast an invalid ballot or not to vote. On December 10, several netizens were arrested for sharing social media posts uploaded by exiled activists who called for boycotting Sunday’s elections.
China’s State Council Information Office white paper, titled “Hong Kong: Democratic Progress Under the Framework of One Country, Two Systems”, said that the Communist Party of China (CPC) had championed the whole process of people’s democracy on the mainland and this had laid the groundwork for developing democracy in Hong Kong under the framework of “one country, two systems.”
“Over the past century, the CPC has led the Chinese people on a long and arduous journey to establish a model of democracy with Chinese characteristics,” enabling them “to run their own country with extensive and substantive democratic rights,” claimed the white paper.
It said Beijing had given democracy to Hong Kong since the city was handed over from the United Kingdom to China. It also said “anti-China agitators in Hong Kong and the external groups behind them” had to be held to account for impeding the city’s progress towards democracy.
The white paper said the latest LegCo elections were successful as there was intense competition among candidates for all 90 seats.
It concluded that with the improved electoral system, Hong Kong’s governance by “patriots” would be strengthened, the rule of law and the business environment would continue to improve and Hong Kong would become a more harmonious society.
The new LegCo would “function effectively as the guardian of national security and unity”, as it was now under the complete control of so-called patriots, Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, wrote in an article published in China Daily on Monday.
The revamped LegCo meant it would no longer “degenerate into a den of anti-China, anti-communist and secessionist politicians” while “agents or proxies” of “adversarial external forces” would be shut out, Lau said. The new Legco would be able to focus mainly on practical matters instead of political infighting, he added.
Beijing has accused democrats of obstructing Hong Kong’s democratic development and disrupting the city’s governance by filibusters in the LegCo chamber. In a tighter squeeze in response to massive protests against an extradition law in 2019, China’s National People’s Congress implemented a new National Security Law in June 2020 that has come under fire from rights groups and pushed many pro-democracy activists and politicians into exile.
Still, Beijing had expected that some moderate democrats would join the LegCo elections so the pro-democracy camp would hold around 10 seats in the geographical constituency, plus a few more in the functional constituency, to remain as a political minority. But most democrats refused to participate, apart from 12 non-establishment candidates who partook but failed to win any seats.
Tik Chi-yuen, a member of the Third Side, a non-establishment political group, won a seat through the functional constituency of social welfare in the LegCo. In 2012, he was branded as a “traitor” by the Democratic Party because he supported the implementation of national education in Hong Kong, seen as a sop to Beijing.
If Tik had not won a seat, all the LegCo seats would have been the same color, which refers to political preference, said Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer at the department of government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
If the legislative body was too cooperative with the administration, it would not be able to play its role of monitoring the government’s operations, Choy added. He said the low turnout at Sunday’s LegCo election was mainly caused by the absence of “pro-democracy” voters, who opposed the electoral changes implemented in March.
In recent months, the government had strongly promoted the LegCo elections. To boost voter numbers, the government allowed elderly care homes to bring residents to polling stations on Sunday, despite the homes having strict pandemic-related visiting rules.
With Beijing’s approval, it also allowed as many as 110,000 Hong Kongers who were staying on the mainland to vote at Hong Kong’s borders and return to the mainland without going into quarantine. About 17,500 people showed up there, according to reports.
However, the government did not allow those staying at 11,500 quarantine hotel rooms to cast votes. Only those at quarantine camps could vote as there was enough space to set up temporary polling stations.
Sunday’s vote caused geopolitical ripples. On December 14, the UK said in its Six-monthly Report on Hong Kong for January 1 to June 30, 2021, that the radical electoral changes imposed by Beijing in March 2021, in breach of China’s legal obligations under their Joint Declaration, meant that parties not aligned with the mainland or that were not pro-establishment would be almost entirely excluded from the legislature.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs retorted that the UK report trampled on the principles of international law and basic norms governing international relations, including “non-interference in others’ internal affairs.”
“During the British colonial rule, Chinese were excluded from the governance structure for a long time,” the statement said. “The Public Order Ordinance and the Societies Ordinance of the colonial British Hong Kong government imposed strict restrictions on assembly, demonstration and association, and Hong Kong people never enjoyed democracy, human rights and freedom.”
The ministry said the British intended to disrupt the election by releasing its “so-called report.”