The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The opposition is in jail. Hong Kong wants its ‘patriots’-only vote to look legitimate.

A man waits at a tram stop next to government banners about the Dec. 19 electoral exercise. (Bertha Wang/AFP/Getty Images)

HONG KONG — Sitting in their jail cells last week, dozens of Hong Kong opposition leaders received bureaucratic fliers reminding them of their right to vote in a citywide legislative poll on Sunday — and a detailed list of candidates.

“We just laughed about it,” said one person who recently visited a detained opposition activist and spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions for the prisoner. “He is not going to vote.”

The Orwellian episode underscores the flimsy veneer of legitimacy covering this weekend’s electoral exercise. In the 18 months since Hong Kong leaders postponed the vote, citing the pandemic, authorities have maneuvered to guarantee the outcome. Most of the pro-democracy opposition has been jailed under a new security law or has fled into exile. Beijing rejiggered the electoral system and added a requirement that only “patriots” loyal to the Chinese Communist Party can run.

Still, officials in the Chinese-run financial center are intent on creating the illusion of a fair contest and are threatening those who might suggest otherwise — a textbook approach adopted by authoritarian regimes that claim a mandate through a flawed electoral process.

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“The regime desperately craves legitimacy” through an election, said Lee Morgenbesser, an expert on authoritarian politics and a senior lecturer at Griffith University in Australia. “But once you get rid of the opposition as they have, the claim becomes harder to establish and a bit more outlandish.”

Sunday’s vote follows a tumultuous period in Hong Kong, where large protests were held in 2019 against Beijing’s interference in local affairs, unleashing months of unrest and a police crackdown.

Last year, China imposed a security law that criminalized much dissent; authorities have jailed more than 100 people since then under its provisions. By February this year, almost every prominent Hong Kong opposition activist was in jail or had fled abroad.

Exiled leaders of the democracy movement have called for Hong Kongers to cast blank ballots this weekend or boycott the process.

Authorities responded by issuing warrants for their arrest.

This month, a senior Hong Kong official threatened “necessary action” against the Wall Street Journal after the paper ran an op-ed that said boycotts and blank ballots “are one of the last ways for Hong Kongers to express their political views.” Hong Kong has issued similar warnings to more than a dozen foreign publications in the past three months. At least 10 people have been arrested, and two of them charged, for allegedly inciting people to cast blank votes.

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While mainland China has one-party rule and no national elections, Hong Kong technically still has a multiparty legislature. Only a portion of the chamber has ever been chosen through direct election, with many seats reserved for representatives of pro-Beijing business interests. But until recently, the legislature had acted as a check on executive power.

At the 2016 poll, the pro-Beijing camp retained a majority of seats, but voters also elected representatives of Hong Kong’s diverse democracy movement, including the activists Nathan Law, Baggio Leung and Alvin Yeung. This time, with the opposition out of the picture, almost all of the candidates are aligned with Beijing to varying degrees.

Maintaining the appearance of a regular campaign, election banners line walls and railings around the city, featuring one candidate after another vowing to restore “stability” to Hong Kong.

Debates have gone on as in previous elections; one candidate said he has been working to get a subway station built in a district that has had one since 1985. In another debate, a pro-Beijing social media influencer was challenged by a candidate on whether she had “landed from thin air” for the job and questioned her familiarity with local issues. She cited her popular YouTube page as evidence of her qualifications. Local media outlets aligned with Beijing continue to cover these as regular campaign events.

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But candidates’ qualifications or popularity are ultimately secondary, said Steve Tsang, the director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is now in control.

“This will be a legislative chamber with PRC characteristics,” he said.

Apparently sensitive to the prospect of a low turnout, Hong Kong officials and even corporations — eager to stay in China’s good graces — are cajoling residents into voting. At least one foreign business, the professional services firm KPMG, has offered a day off to employees who prove they have voted.

Chris Tang, the secretary for security, instructed his bureau, which includes the police and firefighters, that they were “obliged to take practical action to support this election.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has repeatedly encouraged residents to participate, saying that casting a ballot would be a “vote in Hong Kong’s future.” In an interview with the Global Times, a Chinese state-controlled tabloid, however, she said a low turnout could be a sign of confidence in her administration.

“There is a saying that when the government is doing well and its credibility is high, the voter turnout will decrease because the people do not have a strong demand to choose different lawmakers to supervise the government,” she said, adding that the rate “does not mean anything.” An independent poll recently showed support for Lam at 35.7 percent.

The fanfare around Sunday’s vote shows that Beijing believes the “one country, two systems” principle still applies in Hong Kong, said Tsang, referring to Beijing’s assurance that the former British colony would maintain a high degree of autonomy after its handover to China in 1997.

“That may be completely make-believe, but they want to insist on this make-believe being upheld,” Tsang said.

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