HONG KONG – Hong Kong voters are preparing to vote for the first time this weekend since election laws were changed, amid a dearth of opposition candidates months after the city began cracking down on dissent.
The legislative elections, to be held Sunday, come after Beijing in March passed a resolution for electoral reform in Hong Kong that gives Beijing more control over who is elected to Hong Kong's legislature. Beijing has tightened its grip over the semi-autonomous Chinese city following months of pro-democracy protests in 2019 that at times descended into violent clashes between police and protesters.
Hong Kong later amended its laws in May, reducing the number of directly elected lawmakers to 20 from 35, even as the legislature was expanded from 70 to 90 seats. Most of the lawmakers in the legislature would be appointed by largely pro-Beijing bodies.
Under the new laws, legislative candidates will also be vetted by a largely pro-Beijing committee to ensure that only “patriots” loyal to Beijing rule the city.
The elections also come amid a crackdown on dissent in the city. Most of Hong Kong's prominent pro-democracy activists and opposition politicians are either in jail or awaiting trial, after 47 pro-democracy figures were charged with subversion under a national security law in January over their roles in an unofficial primary election.
Authorities say that the primary — organized by the pro-democracy camp — was aimed at crippling the government and subverting state power.
The electoral reforms and stringent vetting processes have also led to fewer pro-democracy candidates. For the first time since 1997, no members from Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy party, the Democratic Party, submitted applications to be nominated.
Overall, the number of candidates for the elections has also fallen. This year, the elections committee approved the nominations of 153 candidates — about half of the 289 nominated to run in the 2016 race.
Regina Ip, a pro-establishment candidate running in the Hong Kong Island West constituency, said that voters will take some time to get used to the new electoral system.
“In the long term, this is a system that permits people of different political ideologies to take part as long as they support our basic constitutional system,” she said. “That is not too much to ask.”
Voter turnout is widely expected to be low for Sunday’s elections. Polls by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute in November found that 53% of respondents opposed the new electoral system, and only 52% planned to vote — which would be the lowest turnout in three decades.
But Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam dismissed concerns of low voter turnout, saying that low voting numbers could indicate that people were happy with the government and did not see a need to elect different lawmakers.
To encourage people to vote, authorities announced that public transport will be free on Sunday. The government also set up polling stations at border checkpoints that will allow registered Hong Kong voters living and working in mainland China to cross the border briefly to vote, before returning to the mainland without having to undergo quarantine.
Earlier this month, Lam said that some 18,000 people had registered to vote at the border polling stations.
Some activists abroad, such as London-based Nathan Law, have called for Hong Kong residents to boycott the elections, describing the race as a “selection” in which candidates have been vetted by “political police.”
“Figures representing people have no hope of running,” Law said in a tweet earlier this week.
New election laws have also banned residents in Hong Kong from inciting others to cast invalid votes or boycott the elections. Those convicted of doing so face up to three years in jail and a 200,000 Hong Kong dollar ($25,600) fine.
The new electoral reforms are a “derailing of the democratization process,” said Kenneth Chan, an associate professor in Hong Kong Baptist University’s department of government and international studies.
“At the end of the day, 4.4 million eligible voters in December would only be choosing 20 of the 90 lawmakers,” he said. “If you just run the arithmetic, you can easily tell there isn’t really any progress towards democracy.”
The lack of candidates with different political inclinations in the elections also does not inspire confidence in terms of the possible checks and balances that could exist between the government and the legislature, according to Chan.
Still, some election hopefuls are running for seats with a moderate stance. Jeffrey Chan, a so-called “non-establishment” candidate and a member of local think tank Path of Democracy, is reluctant to define his position on the political spectrum.
“We would support pro-establishment lawmakers or the government if what they propose is good for Hong Kong. We will oppose if they don’t make sense,” Chan said. “We don’t have a fixed stance. This is what we are. We stand with Hong Kong citizens and we strive for democracy, rule of law and freedom.”
Another candidate, Adrian Lau, is one of the few in this election who have described themselves as “pro-democracy.” Lau previously owned a public relations business, before turning to politics.
He ran in the 2019 district council elections, beating veteran pro-establishment politician Michael Tien in the Tsuen Wan district. District councillors typically look after municipal matters, such as the maintenance of public facilities and organizing of community events.
“Now, we don’t have the power to oppose, but we could still monitor the government and officials as well as the budget,” Lau said.
“A legislator also has an important role to communicate with foreign media. Do we still need someone from the pro-democracy camp to do this job? If no one is doing it, we are just sitting back and doing nothing,” he said. “I choose not to sit back and surrender.”
Associated Press news assistant Janice Lo in Hong Kong contributed to this report.