Hong Kong's Potemkin Polls
Voters turn away dramatically from Beijing’s ‘patriotic’ candidates
Hong Kong’s 4.5 million eligible voters have shown what they thought of the legislative council election imposed on them by Beijing with at least 3 million of them staying home – a record 70 percent of voters spurning the “patriotic” candidates picked by the Communist Party.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam (above), asked in a press conference why so many members of the public didn’t vote in the Sunday, December 19 election, said she had no idea. But, she added, “Maybe you need to ask some opinion leaders about that.”
The response to Lam’s observation is that most of the opinion leaders have either been muzzled or fled the territory in the wake of a draconian National Security Law imposed on the previously independent city a year ago by Beijing, which has grown increasingly irritated with the months of intermittent protest that began as long ago as 2014 against China’s attempts to suppress representative democracy. At the same time, it installed hard-line apparatchiks in the Liaison Office which delivers the central government’s oversight. Jailed activists faced special judges whose verdicts and motions have never been in doubt.
The government, one observer said, had expected turnout as low as 35 percent. The final result exceeded their expectations in the wrong direction. The previous low turnout was in 1996, when 36 percent went to the polls.
The government tried a series of blandishments in an attempt to lure voters, including free transportation on all city buses and the light rail system. Huge signs dotted the territory urging voters to go to the polls and laws threatened anybody who urged spoiled ballots or staying away. With candidates on the streets exhorting passers-by to accept leaflets, many crossed the street to get away from them and their loudspeakers. Thousands of police monitored the polls, and the Independent Commission Against Corruption, once Asia’s most-respected anticorruption agency, monitored the ban on calling for vote boycotts.
At least 10 people were arrested and warrants were issued for five more, all of whom have fled overseas, for advocating sabotaging the election. Some patriotic companies offered their employees the day off, which was relatively meaningless since the election was on a Sunday. How many of the 1.32 million voters who turned out were there willingly is unclear.
Anyway, it was a Potemkin poll that looked like an electoral campaign and sounded like one but was void of meaning as officials sought to give it legitimacy. The government was taking no chances after a November 2019 district council poll ended in humiliation, with pro-democracy forces winning almost 90 percent of the seats. It was a race that Beijing was convinced it would win after months of street protests by students, activists, and labor unions against legislation that was designed to allow the extradition of alleged offenders to mainland China to stand trial. Independent media have been muzzled, with the city’s most prominent activist, Publisher Jimmy Lai in jail and his Apple Daily shuttered.
The election, the first since new rules that mandated that candidates be vetted by national security officials for publicly professed loyalty, resulted – as expected -- with the victory of all 90 members of the new Legislative Council backed by the government. Instead of the universal suffrage that Hong Kong’s citizens have been demanding for the better part of the decade, only 20 seats were elected directly. The remainder were nominated by professional or industry groups or political parties loyal to Beijing. Some 47 opposition members of the previous legislature or independent interest groups had been jailed, with 33 remaining in jail and 14 free on bail with nebulous trial dates in the wake of widespread arrests in February 2021.
The lack of participation is the logical culmination of growing alienation by the majority of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million citizens from Beijing over what was perceived – correctly – as the Communist Party’s refusal to live up to promises of 50 years of independent democracy and universal suffrage embodied in the Basic Law promulgated as a result of an agreement between London and Beijing over the 1997 handover of the 152-year-old Crown colony back to China.
These are people, after all, whose ancestors fled China starting with the arrival of the Communists in 1949 and continued through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward and the Hundred Flowers Period. In the 1980s, when it started to come clear that Hong Kong would be handed back to China, tens of thousands sought overseas citizenship. At one point, Canada had one of the highest overseas populations in the city. They were known as “astronauts” – Hong Kong residents so called because they “splashed down” in Canada, stayed long enough to acquire passports, and returned to the territory.
There was a burst of patriotism in 1997 at the handover, But persistent Chinese meddling over the right of abode for children born in the mainland and other issues eroded that. In 2019, the Public Opinion Polling Program of Hong Kong University found that “compared to this time last year, Hong Kong people’s sense of pride in becoming a national citizen of China has plunged by 11 percentage points to 27 percent, while the percentage of those not feeling proud surged by 14 percentage points to 71 percent, registering all-time record low and record high since 1997 respectively.”
An in-depth study by the polling unit found that the younger the respondents, the less likely they were to feel proud of becoming a national citizen of China, and also the more negative they were toward the Central Government’s policies on Hong Kong.
But somehow Carrie Lam, who is even more deeply unpopular than the previous succession of chief executives imposed on the city by Beijing, somehow found the election encouraging. In an interview with the Global Times, Beijing’s rabid mouthpiece, she said a low number of voters could be a sign of satisfaction with the government.
“There is a saying that when the government is doing well and its credibility is high, the voter turnout will decrease because the people do not have a strong demand to choose different lawmakers to supervise the government,” she was quoted by several media sources as telling Global Times. “Therefore, I think the turnout rate does not mean anything.” She is said to be encouraged enough to be considering a second term in office.