Hong Kong Abstains
A few weeks ago, Xia Baolong, the head of China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, called on the people of Hong Kong to vote in the legislative elections on 19 December. ‘It’s not just a vote for their preferred candidates,’ he said, ‘but also a vote of confidence in “one country, two systems”’ – the formula devised in the 1980s that was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong’s autonomy after it returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
On Sunday, the majority of the electorate rejected Xia’s invitation. Only 1.35 million people – 30 per cent – turned out to vote for the directly elected geographic constituencies, a far cry from the 2.94 million (71 per cent) who voted in district council elections in November 2019.
In those polls, held at the height of the city’s protests, pro-democracy candidates won nearly 400 of the 452 seats available, taking control of 17 out of 18 councils. This time, following a reworking of the electoral system by the National People’s Congress, which made it all but impossible for opposition figures to run, ‘patriotic’ pro-Beijing candidates won 100 per cent.
‘No longer will the legislature degenerate into a den of anti-China, anti-communist and secessionist politicians,’ wrote Lau Siu-kai, the vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, in China Daily.
Criticism of the low turnout was brushed aside by Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam. ‘Hong Kong is now back on the right track,’ she said. ‘We cannot copy and paste the so-called democratic system or rules of the Western countries.’
Lam’s confidence may be justified. It’s hard to see the opposition making a comeback. The leading figures are either under arrest, in jail, in exile or no longer involved in politics. The largest pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, was forced to close. More than fifty civil society organisations, from unions to prisoner support groups, have been pressured into folding.
The stifling of opposition will continue, most visibly in the courts. So far, two trials have been completed under the national security law. Tong Ying-kit was sentenced to nine years in jail for carrying a flag with the slogan ‘Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times’ and crashing his motorcycle into three riot police; Ma Chun-man got five years and nine months for chanting slogans, displaying placards and making statements to journalists that called for Hong Kong’s separation from China.
Last March, 47 pro-democracy activists were charged with conspiracy to commit subversion under the law after they organised unofficial primaries to choose candidates for the legislative council elections. Following two adjournments requested by the prosecution, their trial is now scheduled for next March. Many of them have been denied bail and held in custody for the last nine months.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, eight people, among them Jimmy Lai, the former owner of Apple Daily, were sentenced to jail terms of four to 14 months for their involvement in a banned vigil to commemorate the people killed in Beijing in June 1989.
Street protests and other forms of overt opposition are now all but impossible. Not voting is one of the few avenues of resistance still open. But don’t ask others to join your boycott. In the run-up to Sunday’s poll, the city’s Independent Commission Against Corruption arrested ten people for inciting others to abstain or cast blank or invalid ballots, an offence added to election laws earlier this year. Those found guilty face up to three years in jail.