Beijing Is Pissed After Hong Kong's Primary Vote Shows Support for Pro-Democracy Protest Figures

China slams the primary vote as a "blatant challenge" under its security law, as early returns back influential opposition candidates.
14 July 2020, 2:34pm
This file photo taken on July 11, 2020 shows (back row L to R) Agnes Chow, Anthony Wong, Tiffany Yuen, Denise Ho, Lester Shum, (front row L to R) Eddie Chu, Joshua Wong and Gregory Wong posing while campaigning during a pro-democracy primary election in Hong Kong. Photo by May James/AFP

Hong Kong and mainland authorities have lined up to condemn a pro-democratic primary held ahead of September’s Legislative Council elections, claiming that the vote itself—as well as participants’ potential to veto bills in the territory’s legislature should they win—were a "blatant challenge” to the city’s controversial national security law.

The weekend contest—which, according to preliminary results represented a win for the more confrontational “localist” wing of Hong Kong’s pro-democratic camp—saw gigantic turnout, and was held so as not to splinter the pro-democratic vote in what may become the city’s most competitive legislative election in history. Preliminary results indicate that localist politicians, many of them fixtures at last year’s protests, appeared to have carried the day.

However, the mainland’s cabinet-level Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office on Tuesday evening characterized the poll as “an unlawful manipulation of Hong Kong elections and a blatant challenge against the Basic Law and the national security law,” according to the South China Morning Post.

It also went on to accuse law professor and primary co-organizer Benny Tai of being an advocate of a “scorched-earth mentality” and a “political agent of the foreign forces”—an ominous charge given the new security law’s vague prohibition on “colluding” with foreigners.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, newly empowered under the broadly worded national security law to actively participate in the city’s affairs, was also quick to denounce the poll—and the democratic aspirations it represented—as “illegal.”

“It is a serious provocation to the current election system, seriously damages the fairness and impartiality of the Legislative Council Election, and seriously harms the legal rights and interests of other candidates,” the office wrote in a statement.

It also accused pro-dems, without evidence, of conducting the poll with the backing of “external forces,” and similarly accused Tai of being a “typical suspected criminal.” The exercise, it said, was an attempt to foment a “color revolution” in the territory and to “scramble” the workings of Hong Kong’s government.

The weekend’s pro-democracy primary smashed turnout expectations, Hong Kong Free Press reports, with more than 600,000 ballots cast, representing some 13 percent of total registered Hong Kong voters. Organizers had hoped that just 170,000 people would cast votes.

The poll was intended to set the pro-democracy camp’s strategy ahead of September’s Legislative Council (LegCo) elections, which could prove far more competitive than in years past. Pro-dems are looking to September as an opportunity to finally make significant inroads in the LegCo, where pro-Beijing forces have long held sway.

Candidates such as Joshua Wong, a figurehead for the pro-democracy movement since the 2014 Umbrella protests, and Jimmy Sham, the convenor of the influential Civil Human Rights Front, were among the frontrunners, the South China Morning Post reports.

The city’s new Beijing-drafted security law—which went into effect, sight unseen by local authorities—on the eve of the anniversary of the territory’s return to China by the British, outlaws in expansive terms any acts of subversion, secession, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. Despite repeated assurances from both mainland and Hong Kong authorities that it would not disrupt the unique freedoms the city has long enjoyed, within hours of its passage, activists fled the city, political groups disbanded, and residents were arrested for being in possession of materials bearing purportedly offending slogans.

In the mere two weeks since its passage, Hong Kong officials have repeatedly cited the law in calling out what they claim are forbidden activities that were previously protected under the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

Indeed, even before the weekend’s primary results were released, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam fired a warning shot to those taking part that they could soon be in breach of the law.

“If this so-called primary election’s purpose is to achieve the ultimate goal of rejecting or resisting every policy initiative of the Hong Kong SAR government, then it may fall into the category of subverting the state power, which is now one of the four types offenses under the new national security law,” Lam said during a press conference Monday, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.

Lam rejected the primary process, which she said did not exist in Hong Kong’s electoral system, and claimed that the vote over the weekend broke privacy regulations and COVID-19 mitigation rules, and sowed confusion.

Just days before the primary was scheduled to take place, the city’s constitutional and mainland affairs secretary also issued an ominous and vaguely reasoned warning that the vote could be in violation of the security law.

A former Hong Kong chief executive, C.Y. Leung, also piled on, saying in a pre-recorded message on Sunday that the national security law had been necessary as Hong Kong was “seen as abusing its high degree of autonomy and allowing itself to be used as a base and recruitment centre of subversion.”

“The pan-democrats wanted to remove the central government from this equation and maintain the powers of the chief executive,” he said, according to the South China Morning Post. “This is not democracy. It is secession by any definition.”

Following months of protests last year that evolved into a broad-based rejection of Beijing’s tightening grip on the city, pro-democratic candidates delivered a stunning and unprecedented defeat to the city’s pro-Beijing camp in local district council elections in November. With dissatisfaction with the government at an all-time high, the result was an utter rout—pro-dems won majorities in 17 of 18 district councils, all of which had previously been controlled by pro-establishment figures.

Now, following the passage of the national security law, anti-Beijing sentiment is arguably even higher.

The night before the primary began, the offices of an independent polling agency enlisted to help were raided by police under the auspices of a cyber fraud law that has historically been used as a catch-all for computer-related crimes. The raid took place on the same day that the group, the Public Opinion Research Institute, released the results of a survey in which 61 percent of respondents said Hong Kong was no longer a “free city.”

However, the apparent success of the localists also raised the prospect that they could be specifically targeted by Beijing.

Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the SCMP that the results ”might also prompt the authorities to further tighten their grip on this narrower spectrum of the pro-democracy camp, by disqualifying the candidates, or even postponing the election.”

Indeed, past localist candidates have been disqualified from office on grounds ranging from stunts at their swearing-in to their advocacy for the notion of Hong Kong “self-determination.”