Hong Kong: National security law likely to tip election scales

July 23, 2020 06:00
Photo: Xinhua

The national security law is likely to be used to reduce the number of seats won by the pro-democracy opposition in Hong Kong’s legislative elections scheduled for September.

After democrats swept the district council elections in November, they felt that there was a rare opportunity for them to win a majority of the 70-seat Legislative Council, or LegCo. On July 11-12, the opposition coalition held an informal primary to determine their strongest candidates, one that resulted in quite a few young localist candidates prevailing over experienced traditional democrats.

Days before the primary, Erick Tsang, Hong Kong’s constitutional and mainland affairs minister, warned that it might violate the national security law. He pointed out that one objective of the exercise was to win a majority of seats and subsequently vote against the budget, saying this could contravene the national security law, which prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

The primary – not formally part of Hong Kong’s election system – went ahead despite the government warning and 610,000 people took part, more than a third of the roughly 1.67 million people who voted for democrats in November’s district council elections.

The following day, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the government was investigating “a large number of complaints.” She warned that “if this so-called ‘primary’ election’s purpose is to achieve the ultimate goal of delivering what they call a ’35 plus’ with the objective of objecting to or resisting every policy initiative” of the government, “then it may fall into the category of subverting the state power, which is now one of the four types of offences under the new national security law.”

The same day, the central government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong issued a statement condemning the opposition “for instigating illegal ‘primary elections’ to undermine the fairness of the Legislative Council elections.” A spokesman said the office “severely condemns the opposition political group for ignoring relevant laws and warnings” and voiced strong support for the Hong Kong government’s “in-depth investigation and punishment according to law.”

The spokesman accused the opposition of having worked with foreign forces to cause “serious damage to the fairness and justice of the Legislative Council election” and seriously damaging the “legal rights and legitimate interests of other candidates.” No evidence was cited in support of the foreign forces charge.

The following day, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office issued a statement labeling the activities “illegal manipulation of the LegCo election and asserted it “posed a blatant challenge” to the Basic Law and the national security law.

Other mainland voices chimed in. The official China Daily, in an editorial, asserted that “acts that seriously interfere in, disrupt or undermine the performance of the government's duties and functions, are punishable as acts of subversion under Hong Kong's newly enacted national security legislation.”

The editorial said the intended purpose of the organizers of the “primary” was to win “35-plus” seats “so they can veto all major government policies and initiatives including the annual budget.”

The main organizer, legal academic Benny Tai, who was also an organizer of the Occupy Central campaign in 2014, was denounced by name in the official statements.

It is unclear what Beijing intends to do. Cancellation of the election doesn’t appear to be an option since the Liaison Office spokesman voiced hope that the election would be “completed in an orderly manner in a stable social order and a fair and just environment.”

Instead, the objective more likely is to ensure the pro-establishment camp emerges triumphant in the election following the disqualification of certain democratic candidates.

This shouldn’t be difficult, especially since the democrats are handing the government pretexts to disqualify them.

The national security law provides that anyone standing for election must “swear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.” A number of pro-democracy politicians have publicly asserted that they will refuse to sign any such declaration.

Aware of their possible disqualification, many of the politicians have identified backup candidates who can replace them if their candidacies are vetoed. The nomination process ends July 31; if candidates are not blackballed until close to that date, there may not be enough time for alternative candidates to be nominated.

No doubt, the Hong Kong administration will not want to act in a blatantly partisan manner to avoid a voter backlash. But Beijing is in the driver’s seat and may insist on serious “punishment” of the pro-democracy camp.

One thing is clear: The opposition is highly unlikely to realize its dream of a majority in the legislative elections. Beijing will see to that.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.