Dec 21, 2021 - World

Hong Kong authorities push election censorship globally

Illustration of a gavel cracking the Hong Kong flag

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Elections in Hong Kong on Sunday saw the lowest turnout in the city's history, with just 30.2% of the electorate casting a vote, after an election boycott that Hong Kong authorities attempted to squelch both in the city and abroad.

Why it matters: The Hong Kong government is turning laws intended to protect democratic institutions into tools to strengthen authoritarianism in the once-autonomous city.

  • Pro-Beijing candidates swept the polls, with all candidates first vetted by a committee recently created by the Chinese government.

What's happening: In April, the Hong Kong government made it illegal to urge people not to cast a vote, effectively outlawing a boycott movement. The new regulation amended an election ordinance originally implemented in 2000 to provide standard protections for voters and election integrity.

  • Authorities issued arrest warrants in recent months for Hong Kong activists based abroad who had called for a boycott of the election. The Wall Street Journal editorial board published an article on Nov. 30 denouncing the move and calling the elections a "sham."
  • Erick Tsang, Hong Kong's secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, then sent a letter to the Wall Street Journal stating that "inciting another person not to vote" was illegal under Hong Kong law, even if the incitement happened abroad.
  • "We reserve the right to take necessary action," Tsang told the Journal.
  • Gilford Law, the director-general of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London, wrote a similarly worded letter dated Dec. 8 to the U.K.'s Sunday Times, which had published an article on Dec. 5 calling the elections a "mockery" of democracy and a "sham."

Catch up quick: In the 2019 election, pro-democracy candidates won in a landslide, providing a mandate to the city's huge pro-democracy protest movement.

  • In July 2020, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, who is close to Beijing, postponed the legislative elections, originally scheduled for September 2020, for one year. Lam said the delay was due to the coronavirus pandemic but the move was widely viewed as an attack on the city's democratic processes.
  • In the intervening year, Hong Kong authorities removed pro-democracy legislators and China's rubberstamp legislature imposed new restrictions on elections, including a pro-Beijing committee to vet all candidates to ensure only "patriots" could run.

The big picture: "The Chinese government wants this election to appear to be successful, as Beijing needs the facade of Hong Kong becoming more 'democratic,'" Nathan Law, a former Hong Kong legislator granted asylum in the U.K., wrote in the New York Times.

  • "If the citizens of Hong Kong skip the vote, it would undermine the election’s legitimacy."

The bottom line: The Hong Kong government is distorting a law originally intended to preserve election integrity, and instead, it's using the law to shore up the appearance of legitimacy for elections now widely denounced as a sham.

  • By attempting to enforce this law abroad, Beijing is making good on its promise to apply Hong Kong's newly authoritarian laws globally.
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