Reviews | The Hong Kong election is really a selection
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Signs and messages are everywhere: “Vote for Hong Kong and yourself. The candidates’ faces cover the sidewalk and walls of the city center to the stalls of the wet markets on its outskirts. Government-sponsored billboards calling for “improve electoral system, ensure patriots rule Hong Kong” abound.
Hong Kong and Chinese government officials have for weeks been urging the public to vote in this weekend’s parliamentary elections. But this is not a typical free and fair election: it is a selection process, thanks to an electoral overhaul without significant participation of the opposition (especially because many are in prison).
The Chinese government wants this election to appear successful, because Beijing needs Hong Kong’s facade to become more “democratic.” If the citizens of Hong Kong skipped the vote, it would undermine the legitimacy of the election.
I know firsthand what a meaningful and contested campaign looks like. When I ran for the legislative elections in 2016 and won, the mood was electric. Teams of candidates took to street corners and citizens debated their favorites on social media. The whole town was mobilized; citizens could feel the weight of their vote.
What is happening now, however, is radically different. There are no political debates and the candidates remain silent on the government’s suppression of the democratic movement.
This is because this vote will take place two years after the Beijing crackdown, during which Hong Kong’s autonomy has steadily diminished and critics have been silenced; Since the 2019 pro-democracy protests, Beijing has jailed scores of activists, protesters and political leaders. Every day, Hong Kong looks more and more like another city in mainland China.
It will be the first vote to take place after two significant new measures – part of Beijing’s tightening of grip – that effectively remove the government’s checks and balances.
The first was Beijing’s imposition of a national security law, which was introduced last year. The law has crushed civil society and criminalized freedom of expression. He forced the shutdown of the pro-democracy Apple Daily, the dissolution of the largest independent union, and the ban on the annual vigil for victims of Tiananmen Square. Recently, a protester was sentenced to more than five years in prison for chanting political slogans; no violence was involved.
The second was an electoral reform this year that reduced the proportion of directly elected seats in the legislature from about half to less than a quarter and introduced a mechanism to monitor candidates to ensure they are qualified. “Patriots” – a vague qualification that serves to suppress voices critical of China.
John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief secretary, claimed that “improvements in the electoral system” had ended the “unrest”, resulting in “good governance”, but many Hong Kong people believe the opposite. Sunday’s elections were originally scheduled to take place in 2020, but they were postponed in the name of public health concerns related to Covid – although many believed the government wanted to wait until the election overhaul passed.
By virtue of these measures, the pro-democracy movement is cracked and Democratic leaders have no realistic hope of entering the legislative chamber.
The few self-proclaimed non-establishment candidates lack either a track record in the struggle for democracy or the support of the pro-democracy masses. And many Hong Kong people will not be able to use their votes as a voice or a means of expression.
Despite pervasive government advertising, public election sentiment has never been lower.
People don’t want to vote for a chamber of approval and pretend everything is fine.
It is clear to me that the Hong Kong government is concerned about low turnout. The authority needs citizens in the voting booths to confer legitimacy on the legislature because only 20 candidates out of 90 are elected by popular vote.
Officials tried to counter criticism of the election: Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said low turnout would reflect voter satisfaction with the current government. Mr. Lee defended the elections as “competitive” and free from “traitors.”
These statements reflect the Hong Kong government’s efforts to better align with Beijing’s wider propaganda campaign redefining democracy. A new white paper released by Beijing says China is a “full-blown people’s democracy.” If Beijing can claim to be a democracy, logically it can end criticism of China based on its political ideology.
A “successful” election in Hong Kong helps Beijing propel this narrative: “democracy” takes place – despite citizens’ lack of choice in their leadership or representatives – and delivers results for the people. The more popular Beijing narratives gain, the more successful China’s campaign to undermine traditional democratic systems and values around the world.
With its legitimacy at stake, it’s no mystery why the Hong Kong government overreacted in its defense of the vote – as it threatened a major newspaper with legal action for calling the election a “Simulacrum”.
The news media are not the only target. The government has made it a crime to encourage others not to vote; at least 10 people were arrested. According to the Hong Kong security chief, I “allegedly violated the electoral ordinance and possibly even the national security law” for urging citizens not to vote. This essay will almost certainly garner the same answer.
I guess voter turnout will be low. Not because voters are happy with the government, but rather because they will refuse to help Beijing restore democracy on its own authoritarian terms.
Even though Hong Kong people are silenced, they persist in their passion to defend democracy.
Nathan Law Kwun Chung (@nathanlawkc) is a pro-democracy activist and former Hong Kong lawmaker living in exile in London. Named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020, he is also the author of the new book “Freedom: How We Lose It and How We Fight Back”.
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