Hong Kong’s ‘patriots-only’ election tests China’s vision for territory

In Hong Kong, the message is everywhere: posters and billboards across the Chinese territory exhort its population to vote “for a better community” in local elections on Sunday.

The call, included in TV weather reports and backed by cute ballot-box mascots, is part of a frantic effort by Hong Kong authorities to persuade citizens to embrace a new “patriots-only” election system that has in effect barred opposition candidates from standing.

While the new electoral regime ensures the district councillors selected on Sunday will be supportive of Hong Kong’s government, turnout is seen as an important test of authorities’ ability to demonstrate public support for the political order imposed by China’s President Xi Jinping.

The administration of Hong Kong’s leader, John Lee, would have to bear the “main responsibility” for Sunday’s turnout, said Tam Yiu-chung, a pro-Beijing stalwart who was formerly the territory’s top delegate to the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament.

“Higher voter participation would help show how enthusiastic everybody is,” Tam said in an interview.

Ballot box mascots in Hong Kong
The ‘Ballot Box Family’ of election mascots features ‘Blue Ballot’, ‘Red Ballot’ and ‘Grandpa Ballot’ © Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto/Reuters

Analysts have forecast turnout on Sunday could be less than 30 per cent, down from 71 per cent in the previous district council election in 2019 that the opposition camp won by a landslide.

Since citywide pro-democracy protests the same year, Beijing has clamped down on the once freewheeling Asian financial hub, introducing a sweeping national security law that has silenced almost all dissent and left most opposition activists jailed or in self exile.

Candidates deemed disloyal to Beijing are barred from participating in elections and fewer than 20 per cent of Hong Kong’s 470 district council seats will be decided by direct public vote — down from about 94 per cent in 2019 — with most chosen by smaller groups or directly appointed by Lee.

“Free election in Hong Kong is dead,” said Ho-fung Hung, political economy professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US.

Hung said pre-poll carnivals and a drone show staged by the government to “enhance the public atmosphere” would not significantly raise turnout for the election of councillors, whose role centres on community matters such as dealing with rodent infestation and bus routes.

“It is just a way for the government to show to Beijing it does try,” he said.

Campaigning on the streets of Hong Kong
Campaigning on the streets of Hong Kong ahead of Sunday’s vote © Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Local officials have described Sunday’s vote as completing the “last piece of the puzzle” for the patriots-only system. The first election for Hong Kong’s legislature under the system in 2021 had a turnout of only 30 per cent, down from 58 per cent at the previous legislative election in 2016.

The district-level election is a “parody of democracy” in the form of “guided democracy with Chinese Communist party characteristics”, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a Hong Kong-based political scientist and senior research fellow of the Paris-based Asia Centre think-tank.

Regulators including the city’s Accounting and Financial Reporting Council have called on their members to cast their ballots. Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, has offered discounted airfares to help local residents in mainland China return to the territory to vote.

Authorities are also cracking down on people suspected of inciting others to boycott the election, arresting one 38-year-old man and placing an exiled political commentator on a wanted list.

In an example of the pressures on pro-democracy campaigners, Agnes Chow, a prominent activist who had been on bail on national security charges, revealed this week she had left the city for good after police agreed to return her passport in exchange for a “repentance letter” about her past political activities and a patriotic tour to mainland China chaperoned by national security officials.

At a press conference, Lee, the Hong Kong chief executive, denounced Chow as a “hypocrite” and reiterated his government’s plans to enact more legislation next year to address “threats posed to national security”.

“I encourage everybody to vote. The more people that come out to vote, the better,” Lee said.

Agnes Chow
Agnes Chow said she had to write ‘repentance letters’ to regain her passport so she could leave Hong Kong © Su Xinqi/AFPTV/AFP/Getty Images

Some of the district councillors elected in the 2019 election, which took place in the middle of the mass pro-democracy movement, are now on trial on subversion charges that could land them in prison for life.

“I don’t think Hong Kong voters have changed their minds. Today they just don’t have a voice any more,” Cabestan said. The territory’s citizens could now only choose “between exit and loyalty”, he added.

One civil servant in their 30s, who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of retribution, said they would not go to the polls on Sunday. “My vote just doesn’t make a difference.”

Lau Siu-kai, a consultant for Beijing-based think-tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said he would not expect a “very high” turnout, since supporters of the banned opposition would show their resistance by staying away.

The “Ballot Box Family” of mascots promoting the election includes a “Grandpa Ballot”, and the Hong Kong government is making an appeal to encourage the city’s growing elderly population to turn out. Officials said about HK$3.4mn ($435,000) had been allocated for transportation and assistance for seniors to get to polling stations.

At a campaign rally by the territory’s biggest pro-Beijing party, a school hall in Kowloon was filled with mostly elderly people who applauded loudly with identical sets of plastic clappers when candidates spoke.

“Please believe in us,” said candidate Roger Kwan of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, cheerleader of the patriots-only election system and which backed Beijing’s security law. “December 10! Vote for us!”


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