For those who roam the scorching streets of Hong Kong these days, democracy seems to be staring them in the face. Election posters cover the buildings. The candidates smile and wave from the metro entrances. Radio and television advertisements attract voters.
Millions of people are called upon to vote this weekend, in the first Legislative Council elections since Hong Kong exploded with anti-China street protests in 2019 and Beijing has responded with unprecedented crackdown.
With its British colonial past and officially “semi-autonomous” status in China, Hong Kong prided itself on offering more freedoms than anywhere else controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, and its vibrant history of free speech and freedom of speech. political opposition.
That’s no longer the case, says Ted Hui, a former opposition member in the city’s Legislative Council.
He calls Sunday’s vote a “parody” of an election and is part of Beijing’s strategy to eliminate all opposition votes while trying to appear democratic. He called for a boycott.
As part of a major overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral law this spring, only candidates pre-approved by the Chinese government as “true patriots” are allowed to run.
The number of directly elected council members has also been reduced – from half to less than a quarter (just 20 out of 90 seats) – while the rest are chosen by voters nominated by Beijing.
That left only three eligible candidates who identify as “pro-democracy” out of 153, according to the South China Morning Post valued.
This means that there is now no way for opposition candidates in the city of 7.5 million people to win enough seats to control the council and challenge the Communist Party of China, which polls say. opinion predicted what might have happened if Beijing had not made the changes.
Former pro-democracy council members accused
Hui fled Hong Kong with his family last December as the crackdown on pro-democracy activists intensified. He is one of at least four former council members who now represented largely defunct democratic parties and have now self-exiled to different corners of the world.
Most of their council colleagues who stayed behind, as well as other prominent Democratic activists, were arrested and charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion” as part of China’s expansion in 2020 national security law. They are facing trial for participating in the party’s primaries ahead of the elections, most of them being held in prison awaiting trial.
In an interview from his new home in Adelaide, Australia, Hui said he “had no choice” but to leave.
âMy family was harassed and followed by the Hong Kong regime,â he said.
He described police raids early in the morning on his home and being taken in handcuffs to face charges in court.
“Every moment could be your last moment of freedom.”
In Hong Kong, the official intimidation of critics ahead of the election was far-reaching.
Last summer, the Apple Daily tabloid, the most important opposition media, forced to cease activity by the government.
Earlier this week, its founder, Jimmy Lai, and seven others were sentenced to up to 14 months in prison for holding a vigil in June in memory of the hundreds of people killed by Chinese soldiers during the 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square.
Commemoration took place every year in Hong Kong until it is banned in 2020 by police under COVID-19 restrictions. This, at the same time as Beijing introduced its national security law.
“It’s more than painful”
Now any criticism of China or the Hong Kong government is rare. In a city where two million people demonstrated two years ago and where opposition candidates dominated municipal elections in late 2019, today authorities have made protests almost unimaginable.
“What was once a liberal and free society is now gone, and they have succeeded in bringing fear into the life and heart of this city,” said Dennis Kwok, another former board member who fled Hong Kong. . “Anyone who speaks out about politics in a way that displeases the authority will face very serious consequences.”
Kwok was one of four Legislative Council members ousted from the legislature last November after a resolution was passed disqualifying lawmakers who support independence or are seen as “unpatriotic”. The other 15 members of the pro-democracy caucus resigned in protest.
Kwok flew from Hong Kong to Vancouver earlier this year with his family. He was born in Canada, although he renounced his citizenship as a condition for taking up office in 2012. In his first interview since moving to North America, he spoke fondly of the colleagues he left behind. him.
âIt’s very personal for me and my friends,â he said. “You can’t even use the word painful to describe what is going on; it is beyond painful. It is absolutely devastating to see this happening in your hometown.”
Hong Kong’s leader, Managing Director Carrie Lam, defends the new electoral law as “reasonable and fundamental”.
In one Chinese state television interview, she said, it is about “ensuring that only the patriots have the possibility of administering” the territory, and not to exclude other political opinions. For her, she said, a patriot is someone who thinks “it is good for the People’s Republic of China to resume the exercise of its sovereignty” over Hong Kong.
Calls for the cancellation of condemned ballots by officials
Yet all of this made officials fear that voters would ignore or boycott the election, or spoil their ballots, sending an embarrassing message to the Hong Kong government and the Beijing Communist Party.
From Australia, Hui advised Hong Kong people to issue such a “protest vote”, prompting the Hong Kong government to issue an arrest warrant against him. An official noted Hui’s encouragement amounted to “an act of rebellion” that could violate the National Security Law.
In part to avoid spoiled votes, ballots must now be submitted without folds.
Hong Kong also has threatens the Wall Street Journal with a lawsuit for an editorial who issued calls for voter disobedience.
“The Communist Party is worried,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University.
The leaders of Beijing and Hong Kong “need this to look like an election,” he said, “as an act of political legitimization.”
China was scolded by Britain, which previously controlled the territory, for unilateral “radical” changes to electoral rules that break treaty promises made by Beijing when Hong Kong returned to Chinese control in 1997. At the time, Chinese leaders signed declarations promising to work to give Hong Kongers true universal suffrage and eventually allowing them to directly elect their top leaders.
“The erosion of freedom in Hong Kong is an affront to freedom and democracy,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said this week.
This election confirms that “we are really in an authoritarian environment, which is very new in Hong Kong,” Cabestan said. “The political life we ââused to see and witness in Hong Kong is gone.”