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PoliticsHong Kong

Were Hong Kong's 'patriots only' elections a sham?

William Yang Taipei
December 20, 2021

After recording the lowest turnout rate in Hong Kong's electoral history on Sunday, critics have said the city's legislative council elections are just a rubber stamp for Beijing.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam casts her vote at a polling station in the city wearing a gray jacket
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she was 'satisfied' with the election resultImage: Tyrone Siu/REUTERS

Pro-Beijing candidates dominated Hong Kong's legislative election held on Sunday in the city's first public poll after Beijing passed a resolution to amend the city's election laws.

The changes ensured that only pro-Beijing "patriots" could stand as candidates.

While the number of registered voters reached 92.5% — higher than elections in 2012 and 2016 elections, when around 70% of voters had registered — turnout was at an all-time low of 30.2%.

Meanwhile, spoiled ballots accounted for 2.04%, a record high in Hong Kong's electoral history.

Critics interpreted the low turnout as a sign that Hong Kong residents have renounced the electoral system changes that were announced by China in March and approved by Hong Kong's legislature on May 27, 2021.

"Many Hong Kongers think this so-called election is a sham and they are refusing to give [the election] a full sense of legitimacy," Glacier Kwong, a Hong Kong activist in exile in Germany, told DW.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Monday said she was "satisfied" with the election result and turnout.

What were Hong Kong's electoral system changes?

Under the changes, the number of directly elected lawmakers was reduced from 35 to 20, even as the legislature was expanded from 70 to 90 seats.

Most of the lawmakers were appointed by largely pro-Beijing bodies, ensuring that they make up the majority of the legislature.

All candidates hoping to stand in the election had to be vetted by a largely pro-Beijing committee before being nominated.

Chinese authorities said the electoral shake-up was aimed at getting rid of "loopholes and deficiencies" that threatened national security during anti-government unrest in the territory in 2019.

The overhaul received widespread criticism from the international community and pro-democracy activists. They claimed it represented a significant break from the constitutional principle of "one country, two systems" that Hong Kong residents have enjoyed since the handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

Under the principle, Hong Kong residents were promised that they would be able to enjoy "a high degree of autonomy" and many political freedoms for a period of 50 years, until 2047.

How significant is the low voter turnout?

Kwong said the low turnout can be interpreted as a clear signal to the international community that Hong Kong citizens do not view the selection of "patriots" as a genuine election.

"I think the global community should recognize the message and refuse to recognize the newly-elected legislative council as the representative of Hong Kongers," she said.  

Other experts have highlighted the low turnout as symptomatic of a broken democratic system.

"This lowest turnout rate in Hong Kong's electoral history means people in the city are not interested in this election," said Eric Lai, a Hong Kong law fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Asian Law.  

A climate of fear

Activist Kwong said authorities in Hong Kong  tried to create an atmosphere of fear ahead of the election. They arrested 10 people for allegedly calling on others to boycott the election, as well as dozens of pro-democracy figures who intended to stand in this election.  

Hong Kong officials also issued warrants targeting five overseas activists who called for a boycott of the election.

People queue to vote at a polling station during the Legislative Council election
Some critics called the election a 'selection' after only Beijing patriots were permitted to standImage: Tyrone Siu/REUTERS

"I think these moves are all part of the signal to Hong Kong citizens that if you dare to resist anymore, you will be made an example of," she said.  

While it is not illegal to cast spoiled ballots or refuse to vote in Hong Kong, authorities in the city made it a crime to incite others to boycott or cast invalid ballots. Offenders could face up to three years in jail, with a fine of HK$200,000 (€22,800, $25,600).  

Lai told DW that the series of amendments on electoral law proved that the Hong Kong government is not interested in allowing for diverse political expression or election campaigns.

Beijing-backed officials defend election results

"In this election, 1.35 million voters cast their votes. They did not just return candidates of their choice to LegCo [Legislative Council], and I think it was also because of their support for the improved electoral system,'' Lam said.

She appeared unfazed by the low turnout, saying that it was a personal choice for registered voters to exercise their right to vote.

"Hong Kong is now back on the right track of one country, two systems," she added. "We cannot copy and paste the so-called democratic system or rules of the Western countries." 

Additionally, several pro-Beijing candidates who gained seats in the new legislative council reiterated the notion that "turnout rate doesn't represent everything." Starry Lee, the head of the largest pro-Beijing party, The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), said that the new electoral system reflects the essence of "patriots rule Hong Kong." She added that the 30% turnout rate also meets the pro-Beijing camp's expectation.  

What's the future for the legislative council?

With a legislative council filled with pro-Beijing and pro-establishment politicians, Kwong told DW that "it will simply be an echoing machine for the government."

Ivan Choy, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says the legislative council will now become increasingly similar to the National People's Congress in China, with democratic representation replaced by diversity in candidates' backgrounds.

For him, this is not a substitute for democracy.

This view is shared by Eric Lai of Georgetown, "With the new electoral system, it's quite obvious that the new legislature will be more exclusive to public opinion and popular demands," Lai said. "The legislature will be much more centralized upon the hands of Beijing rather than the stakeholders in society."  

China's State Council on Monday released a white paper on Hong Kong's democratic development under the one country, two systems framework, claiming that the new legislative council is part of an effort to develop democracy in Hong Kong.

This includes "giving the approval to amend the election procedures for the Chief Executive and the LegCo [Legislative Council], setting a timetable for universal suffrage, and drawing up a roadmap for electing the Chief Executive by universal suffrage," China's state-run newspaper Global Times reported.

Kwong and Lai, however, believe the elections represent the closing of another channel for open democracy in Hong Kong. But they remain hopeful that resistance from civil society will continue.

"For citizens on a daily basis, they can still make active choices of avoiding engaging with pro-Beijing businesses. There is still room for different things to happen. The only difference is that it's no longer active political participation like protests," Kwong said.

Edited by: Kate Martyr