The postponement of elections in Hong Kong has more to do with Beijing’s fear of the democracy movement than public health concerns, writes Colin Sparks.
The September election to the Hong Kong Legislative Council (Legco) has been postponed for 12 months. Chief Executive Carrie Lam, fully backed by Beijing, made the announcement just as nominations closed on Friday 31 July. She extended the term of the current, pro-Beijing, Legco, using the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, inherited from the British colonial government, to override the clear wording of the Basic Law. This specifies that the Legco’s term is four years and can only be postponed for up to 14 days. Lam is asking Beijing to rubber-stamp her decision and over-ride the Basic Law yet again, in another clear demonstration that ‘One Country, Two Systems’ is dead and buried as far as she is concerned.
Resurgence of Covid-19
Lam is using the recent resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic as her reason for this negation of democratic rights. It is true that the public health situation in Hong Kong is currently deteriorating rapidly, but this is due to the negligence and mistakes of her government. After she was forced to impose restrictions on entry, partly as a result of strike action by medical workers, it looked as though Hong Kong had the pandemic under control. Very few people had died and there were several weeks without any locally transmitted cases. Imposing testing and compulsory quarantine of visitors seemed to have cut off the flow of infections. It turns out there were important exceptions. Aircrew arriving in Hong Kong, the crews of merchant ships rotating in the port, and officials and business travellers commuting to and from the mainland were among the groups exempted from testing and quarantine. This blatant subordination of public health to political and business considerations has had the predictable result of unleashing a new wave of infections in Hong Kong. The one new policy the government did introduce in response to this fresh outbreak, a ban on eating meals inside restaurants, was reversed within 24 hours after public anger at workers being forced to eat out in the streets during a downpour.
In any case, as many critics have pointed out, elections have been successfully conducted in other countries, including Japan, Singapore and South Korea, in the course of the pandemic. The claim that an election would constitute a major boost to the disease is a transparent excuse for what is a blatantly political decision.
Support for the democracy movement
The real reason for the postponement is that the local government, and Beijing, fear that any election will result in an overwhelming victory for pro-democracy candidates. Harsh police action combined with genuine fears about health risks has kept demonstrations to a minimum since the last major protest on 1 July. Nevertheless, Beijing and the local government were both terrified that there would be a repeat of the November 2019 democratic landslide in the local elections. They seriously misjudged the popular mood, believing that six months of demonstrations would have turned people against the democratic movement. An unofficial primary election to select candidates run by the democrats on 12 July attracted more than 600,000 voters. The main beneficiaries of the poll were ‘localist’ parties that want independence, or at least self-determination, for Hong Kong.
In the run-up to the postponement, the government had been trying to rig the outcome. They banned 12 candidates, including some very moderate members of the Civic Party who are already members of Legco, on the spurious grounds that some of them did not support the new national security law, others had called for sanctions on Hong Kong, and some favoured self-determination. The decision gained immediate support from Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, which claimed that only ‘patriotic’ candidates who promised not to challenge the government were eligible to run for office.
The banned candidates called for continued opposition to repression. An attempt to ban many democratic candidates has long been anticipated: the immediate response of the movement was to secure the nominations of replacements to fight the seats from which existing candidates had been banned, but there remains the strong possibility that the government will disqualify 21 more candidates after the nomination period closed on 31 July. Whether such bans will last for twelve months until the next election is not yet clear.
The decision to ‘postpone’ the election has been only one part of a growing ‘White Terror’. With the street movement on the retreat as a result of public fear of infection as well as increasingly aggressive and brutal policing, the government and its allies have been emboldened to take the offensive. On 29 July, four teenagers were arrested under the national security law ‘on suspicion of inciting secession’. They are former members of a student pro-independence group, Studentlocalism, that disbanded hours before the law was introduced.
This was the first time that the newly established ‘national security’ political police set up to enforce the law had taken action. According to the police, the four were arrested ‘based on the content of social media accounts’. These accounts are in fact run by other former members of the group, all of whom are now safely outside of Hong Kong and thus can’t be arrested. So far, the cops have not been able to dream up a suitable charge and the four have been released on bail. The police also want to arrest six other people, one of whom has been a US citizen for more than 20 years, but they are already safely out of the reach overseas.
The friends and allies of the government have also been busy. On 28 July, the Council of Hong Kong University sacked law professor Bennie Tai. Tai is a prominent, and pacifist, democracy activist who was previously jailed for 16 months for public nuisance offences in connection with the Umbrella Movement democracy struggle in 2014. In taking its decision by a vote of 18 to 2, the Council overrode the view of the University’s Senate. The Senate is an academic body, which took the view that nothing he had done constituted grounds for dismissal. The Council is made up of non-academics, six of them appointed directly by the Chief Executive, stuffed full of pro-Beijing loyalists. It is chaired by a member of the government.
This is no isolated action. Free speech in schools, for teachers as well as students, has been under attack for some time now. It is clear that the thought police are now also moving to silence critics in universities. The day before Tai was sacked from Hong Kong University, the lecturer and Legco member Shiu Ka-chun was told that his contract with Hong Kong Baptist University would not be renewed when it expires in August.
Beijing and its local satraps are clearly launching an all-round offensive designed to break the pro-democracy movement. The jailing of some of the 9,000 protesters arrested in the last 12 months continues. The new law is being used on the flimsiest of pretexts to snuff out political opposition. The government is tearing up its own constitution and its allies are purging independent voices from education and the media. All avenues of peaceful public protest are being blocked. If anything, however, this repression will feed the mood of popular discontent. We can’t know when and how it will next find expression, but as they sow, so shall they reap. Just as the Umbrella Movement crushed in 2014 was reborn vastly bigger in the 2019 struggle against the Extradition Bill, so that struggle too will be reborn on an ever larger scale in the future.