Is China Trying to Rig HK District Council Races?

Two developments in the run-up to elections for Hong Kong’s District Councils – largely advisory bodies -- have given rise to fears of ever more illegal tricks, with a waiter offering a prospective candidate HK$400,000 in one race in an apparent bid to split the vote and deny a seat to a pro-democracy candidate. The other development, more encouraging, was that the plot was foiled by Hong Kong's respected Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

As China grows more assertive about denying the territory’s overwhelming preference for an elective government not ruled by Beijing, well-heeled anti-democracy organizers have been doing their best to divide their opponents and influence balloting.

Most significant recently was the arrest on Sept. 24 by the ICAC of the suspect waiter, charged with trying to bribe or persuade others to stand as candidates, a criminal offense under the electoral law. Two of the charges were that the suspect offered the bribe to an individual to stand as a candidate in a specific geographical constituency and to persuade another person to stand at a separate specific constituency.

Three more charges related to the suspect offering money to others to stand as candidates in three other constituencies.

With the suspect working as a waiter, the allegations, if proven, would suggest that big money is coming from China's so-called United Front, whose time-worn strategy is to use coordinated efforts often involving labor and directed by Beijing to gain control over a fractious city that showed by last autumn’s protracted demonstrations that it doesn’t want to be controlled. Today, the attempts at control are made through local elections.

United Front tactics date back to the early days of the Chinese Communist Party when it infiltrated labor unions, civic groups and other organizations in pre-revolution Shanghai and elsewhere as it fought the Nationalist Chinese for supremacy. The United Front has long been a feature of Hong Kong politics even under the British.

Thus resources are being directed at individuals who would be willing to stand to split the vote and keep out pro-democracy candidates from mainstream parties.

The upcoming elections have also thrown up evidence of widespread corruption of the electoral rolls, with the elderly in care homes being registered as voters without their knowledge and with many others being registered with false addresses.

While this is probably not on a sufficient scale to influence elections to the Legislative Council, due in 2016, it could make a difference at the district level, given the small constituencies and low turnout.

The struggle to keep Hong Kong’s system separate from the mainland is a continuing one that often confronts the sheer weight of money available to the pro-Beijing forces, whether from their own coffers or via businessmen persuaded to be “patriotic” in order to further their business interests.

The indicators are often small but too numerous to be discounted. For instance, the daily newspaper Ming Pao ran as its whole front page a statement by an anti-democracy group pouring scorn on the Umbrella movement, which led last year's protests. Although this was obviously a political advertisement, the page carried the red Ming Pao logo, thus associating the paper itself with the statement, even though Ming Pao claims to be an independent paper widely read by the Hong Kong middle class. The word “advertisement” only appeared in very small characters at the bottom of the page. It was the work of a self-styled “Group of Citizens Who Love Hong Kong Passionately.”

Their identity and source of funds was not revealed but clearly part of it came from the United Front, whether or not orchestrated by Beijing’s Liaison Office and senior party members in the territory.

It is worth recalling that the then editor of Ming Pao, Kevin Lau, was badly injured in a knife attack by two men in February 2014. Lau barely survived. Two men were subsequently convicted but they were hired hit-men who declined to reveal who paid them. It is generally assumed that the attack on Lau, a moderate if staunch democrat, was politically motivated.