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Hong Kong Readies for an Electoral Charade
China redesigns election process so that only ‘patriots’ need apply
On Sunday, December 19, Hong Kong’s citizens are supposed to go to the polls in new elections redesigned at Beijing’s direction since the crackdown began on the independent territory a year ago. In most jurisdictions, what the authorities are up to would be regarded as blatant bribery. But anything now goes in Hong Kong when it suits the puppets doing Beijing’s work.
Having “reformed” the legislative system from its already quasi-democratic posture to make mass voting irrelevant, the government is now desperate to dragoon the public to the polls so it can claim that it is showing how to make representative democracy work. For this, bribery – the offer of an advantage for taking part – is proving necessary but anyway may not work.
To remind readers, until the recent “reform,” Hong Kong’s 70-seat legislature was half directly elected by the populace in geographical constituencies and half by voters from business and professional groups, and representatives of elected district councils. Originally scheduled for September of 2020, authorities used the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic to postpone the vote while they re-engineered the process.
Now, the legislature has been enlarged to 90 seats but the number directly elected from geographical constituencies has been reduced to 20. Half of the seats will go to members of the Electoral Commission, a largely government-appointed body, and 30 to functional constituencies. In addition, all candidates have to be approved in advance to ensure that only “patriots” (as defined by Beijing’s operatives) are allowed to compete.
The competition to be elected is thus confined to a predetermined group, almost none of whom has come forward with substantive policy proposals, least of which might seriously challenge the government’s policy. Only three of the 153 candidates for the legislative council are said to identify themselves as pan-democrats. Stories abound of citizens crossing the street to duck away from the campaigners.
To try to make this North Korea-like process attract participation, the government is employing a stick as well as carrots. The stick is a law passed by an already rubber-stamp legislature (democrats having been either arrested, expelled or resigned) making it illegal to recommend that people not vote or cast spoiled ballots. Such a recommendation is only natural given that the pan-democrats who won most of the directly elected legislative and district council seats in 2016 and 2019 respectively are in jail, barred from sitting or have fled abroad. The so-called Independent Commission against Corruption – which reports to the Chief Executive—has been wheeled out to track down and prosecute people practicing freedom of speech.
Meanwhile, the government is encouraging the offer of inducements. The privately-owned bus companies and the semi-private Mass Transit Railway have been persuaded to offer free transport on voting day. At least this will give people the chance to travel everywhere in the territory that they want and without having to go to the polling stations. However, there is always the implied threat that free travel provides an obligation to vote and those not doing so may end up being anonymously reported to the ever-busy national security police hotline receiving information from neighborhood spies. Even well before the voting demand issue came up, police were receiving as many as 500 tipoffs a day.
Some companies are taking this a step further in inducements. The giant multinational auditing practice KPMG is reported offering employees a day off work, even though the vote is on a Sunday when KPMG’s offices are closed anyway. How the company is supposed to know if people vote in what is supposed to be a secret ballot remains to be seen. But given KPMG’s repeated, large-scale financial sector auditing failures in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, and now being seen in the way it is casting aside unbiased political principles and due diligence to ingratiate itself with the authorities, such misuses are to be expected.
Meanwhile, developer Sun Hung Kai Properties’ chairman Raymond Kuok, head of reportedly Asia’s second richest family, wrote urging his employees to vote. Another all too eager to show his patriotism was Brian li Man-bun, joint CEO of the Bank of East Asia, who wrote of the importance of Hong Kong’s citizens casting their vote and “picking talent who love China.” Li is the son of Sir David Li Kwok-po, former ingratiator with the colonial government and who narrowly escaped criminal prosecution for insider trading with a friend to whom he leaked news of Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Dow Jones publishing empire, instead paying US$8 million civil penalty.
Whether son Brian’s plea to vote will do anything for Bank of East Asia’s share price is doubtful. It is currently around HK$11 per share, a third of its value five years ago.